Graphic: Natalie Peeples

Here in the Midwest, there’s an appealing crispness in the air, and perfectly sane people who would commonly have no interest in anything so festive are chirping about apple-picking and hay rides and strolling down the street wearing sweaters over plaid collared shirts. There is no bad season to eat a baked potato, but the pleasure of devouring a toasty earth-nugget at lunchtime, or beholding one as it steams beside a dinner plate and a cold Oktoberfest, is very great. Who needs decorative gourd season? It’s baked potato season, motherfuckers.

With that in mind, I set out to discover which of the many methods of baking a potato should prove most satisfactory. I sought out methods from the worlds of the culinary and the Internet, and while the bulk of these employed the oven, I also wanted to try some other household appliances. Nearly all of these methods resulted in a decent-enough baked potato, and though the gulf between an acceptable baked potato and an excellent one is wide, that chasm can be bridged with enough butter, salt, and pepper.

A few quick notes: In all cases, potatoes were scrubbed beforehand; any additional preparation is noted below. Had I the means, you’d see potatoes a) made on a grill, and b) cooked in a campfire, but alas, it was not to be. These potatoes were roughly the same size, but you should still assume that the lack of uniformity in potatoes is a variable I could not control. And last, appliances (and altitudes) vary—450 degrees at an hour for me may not be the same for you.


Potatoes, not from an oven

Microwave

The method: I pushed the baked potato button, entered the quantity (one), and waited. My microwave did the work—4 minutes and 30 seconds of work.

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The effort: I should first acknowledge that all baked potatoes are easy to make. Still, this one was the easiest. I pricked it with a fork a couple times. I pushed the button. I waited. I picked it up with tongs. I cut it open. Fin.

The result: Wow, this was bad. Gummy in the outside layers, raw in the middle, and vaguely slimy. But hey, at least it made an ominous whistling noise.

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Rating (out of five possible spuds): 🥔


Slow cooker

The method: I used this AllRecipes recipe. Rub with olive oil, salt, wrap tightly in foil, pop in slow cooker, and place on high for 4.5-ish hours, or on low for 8-ish hours. I did one at each cooking time/temp.

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The effort: Pretty straightforward. Has the advantage of not heating up one’s apartment on a surprisingly balmy late September day, and the pleasure of coming home after hours away to the smell of a baked potato is not to be underestimated.

The result: Decent, but unremarkable. The longer/lower potato was slightly overcooked and a little gummy. The convenience is a plus. I’ve also tried this method with sweet potatoes with significantly better results.

Rating (out of five possible spuds): 🥔🥔


Toaster oven

The method: At the suggestion of The Cooking Detective, I dried the potato on a rack, poked it a few times with a fork, and put it in the toaster oven at 400 degrees. I then checked on it every 10 minutes and added more fork-holes. at the 45-minute mark, I removed a big layer of skin from the top, covered it with butter and pepper, and placed it back in the toaster oven for a final 15 minutes.

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The effort: Still simple, though this is the second-most complicated method I tried. I don’t know how much the additional holes added throughout may have helped, but if it contributed to the taste, it was worth the effort.

The result: Excellent. The late addition of the butter has to be taken into account, though it didn’t seep through the whole potato or anything. The biggest effect is that it made the skin a little crispy on the sides. Overall, this was close to perfectly cooked, and was only a little undercooked in one tiny spot. If I’d left it another five minutes, it might have been perfect.

Rating (out of five possible spuds): 🥔🥔🥔🥔 (one spud lost for the undercooked bit and the effort)

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Potatoes, made with two appliances

Jacques Pépin, Fast Food My Way

The method: Pépin credits this method to his wife Gloria. He does not suggest the fork-poking technique, so I did not fork-poke. He does, however, direct one to scrape off any brown spots with a paring knife. Four minutes in a microwave on 100 percent, flip, repeat. Transfer to a 450 degree oven for 12 to 15 minutes.

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The effort: Even with the spots-scraping, this was extremely simple. No oil, no foil, no salt. Done in 25 minutes.

The result: These were pretty good, but the speediness with which they were ready makes up for some of the comparative lack of flavor (particularly with regard to the skin). I will absolutely use this one again.

Rating (out of five possible spuds): 🥔🥔🥔🥔 (three-spud taste, five-spud convenience.)

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The oven classics

Ina Garten

The method: Wash, place directly on rack, cook at 350 degrees for 45 minutes to an hour, remove when a skewer meets no resistance. No frills. Like Pépin, Garten also didn’t direct me to poke holes with a fork, so no forks were poked and no holes holed.

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The effort: In theory, the hardest part here is washing the potato. In reality, repeatedly checking to see if it’s finally done cooking is slightly stressful (at least, it is when you’re cooking lots of potatoes using various methods in a short time.)

The result: I figured once I was 15 minutes past Ina’s suggested cook time, it was time to throw in the towel. Then I let it go another five. It was still seriously undercooked. The skin was okay.

Rating (out of five possible spuds): 🥔🥔 (edible)


Mark Bittman, How To Cook Everything

The method: Wash, “trim” (remove dark brown and green spots as well as eyes), poke a few times with a knife or skewer, bake at 350 degrees for 85 minutes or until a knife meets no resistance.

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The effort: Slightly more prep effort, but still very simple.

The result: Excellent. Could only wish for slightly crispier skin. Mealy, neither over- nor under-cooked anywhere.

Rating (out of five possible spuds): 🥔🥔🥔🥔


Sam Sifton, The New York Times

The method: Olive oil, salt, poke, “roast for 45 minutes to an hour, depending on the size of the potatoes.”

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The effort: Rubbing oil into potatoes is really satisfying. Very simple otherwise.

The result: Not bad, but the oil on the skin made it kind of sticky, rather than crispy or particularly flavorful. The insides were close to perfect, though.

Rating (out of five possible spuds): 🥔🥔🥔


America’s Test Kitchen

The method: Okay, this one is by far the most complicated, which is not to say that it’s particularly hard to pull off. It’s not. But it is worth reading their original recipe in full.

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Highlights: Oven rack in middle position, oven heated to 450 degrees. Fork-poke six times. Briefly toss potatoes in bowl of salt water. Place on wire rack, place rack on rimmed backing sheet, place sheet in oven.

Start checking potatoes at 45 minutes. Wait until the biggest potato is 205 degrees at the center. Remove from oven, brush with vegetable oil, replace for 10 minutes.

The effort: Like I said, easily the most complicated, but well worth it if you’ve got the time (and it doesn’t take much.)

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The result: Ahhhh, perfection. For whatever reason, I couldn’t get mine to 205 degrees (I suspect maybe my thermometer is bogus?) but I tried twice and called it good at 200 degrees. Both were delicious, and the skin is far and away the best. Crispy, slightly salty, amazing.

Rating (out of five possible spuds): 🥔🥔🥔🥔🥔


Allison’s takeaways

  • Don’t use the potato button on your microwave.
  • Too much oil on the skin for too long doesn’t make it crispy, it makes it kind of goopy.
  • Considering the skin in general makes a big difference between an acceptable B.P. and a great one, as does putting in a little effort, as opposed to putting in no effort.
  • That said, you have to actively avoid putting in effort to wind up with a truly shitty baked potato.
  • Baked potatoes are delicious, and it is impossible to get sick of them, even when you make approximately 12 within 48 hours.

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