I recently wrote an article here complaining that even though everyone
agrees on what a good french fry is like, and even though it's not
hard to make a good french fry, most of the fries you actually get are
I have a similar complaint about baked potatoes. Restaurant baked
potatoes are uniformly terrible, even when you pay $10 for them at an
expensive steakhouse. The potato is supposed to steam inside its
skin and become soft and fluffy inside, and crisp on the outside.
Instead you almost always get a potato that is not too different from
The bad fries are a mystery. It only takes a few minutes longer to
make really good fries, and I don't understand why more people don't
do it. The baked potatoes are easier to understand. Making a good
baked potato takes a lot of time. It doesn't require skill or
attention, just patience.
The recipe is: heat the oven to around 350°. Start with a big starchy
potato, the kind with dusty brown skin. Wash, dry, and oil the
potato, prick it with a fork, and put it naked into the oven. (No
foil! Unless you want your baked potato to be a steamed potato
And then add the secret ingredients: time and heat. Many recipes
advise baking the potato for an hour. This is not enough. Once the
potato goes into the oven, leave it there, for at least ninety
minutes, maybe a hundred and twenty. If it's in a pan you might want
to turn it over once. It's probably better to just put it on the
rack, then you don't need to turn it.
The exact time and temperature is not that important. This is not
rocket science; it is just a potato. The proper cooking time is not a
fleeting instant, it is a long afternoon, an easy target. At some
point the potato will begin to overcook, but not for a long time, and
if it does, it will happen very gradually. The skin will stay crisp
and the inside will stay fluffy; only a thin shell in between will dry
out too much, and even if it does you may not find it objectionable;
some people like it that way. I suppose eventually the entire potato
would char and catch fire, but you would have to work really hard to
leave it in the oven that long.
The other key point is to take the baked potato out of the oven and
deliver it to the table at the moment you are about to eat it, and not
any sooner. The baking time is quite flexible, as long as you don't
take it out too soon. So don't say “oh, the recipe said to bake it
for 90 minutes”, and then take it out after exactly 90 minutes and let
it sit around for a quarter hour before you serve it. Leave it in the
oven until serving time, and when everything else is ready,
then take it out and drop it on the plate.
Restaurant chefs have years of training and practice in the culinary
arts, and because of this they cook many things much better than the
rest of us. But how much advantage do they derive from their training
and practice when baking a potato? Pretty close to zero.
Restaurants, by their nature, are really good at some kinds of food,
much less good at others. The baked potato is very ill-suited to
restaurant-style preparation methods. It takes a long time to cook,
but unlike many long-cooking foods, such as stew or soup, it can't be
prepared in advance and then reheated. (The outside, which should be
the best part, would get tough and leathery.) The baked potato is
best when served on the instant, but unless the restaurant had a whole
oven devoted to potatoes in different stages of doneness, circulating
in and out in shifts through the day, and unless they invested the
attention and trouble to keep track of all those potatoes, putting in
new ones and taking out the old ones every half hour or so, they
wouldn't be able to produce a well-baked potato at the moment they
needed to deliver it to the table.
And if the restaurant did go to all that trouble, what then? They
wouldn't be able to charge enough to pay them back for the time and
trouble, because it is just a potato, and who is going to pay a lot of
money for a potato?
So baked potatoes are a dish that you can do at home better than a
restaurant can, and you might as well. Let's all create a better
world by cooking better baked potatoes.