Growing up, I lived with my grandparents. This led to some interesting moments that are likely uncommon for people my age. I recall clearly the day they got their first telephone, for instance. We watched the Olympics on an older television in the upstairs room, black and white of course, that had a remote control “clicker”. One button. You clicked it, and the physical dial on the tv would jump forward one channel. I’m talking serious moving parts and loud resounding noises. Imagine a blow-torch lighter, the kind where you squeeze it and it sparks by scraping off a bit of steel, and you’ll understand what I’m talking about.
Anyway. Among other things I recall the first day that the microwave oven entered the household. Square, electric, on another order of technological achievement altogether than the gas stove. This time we were more or less keeping pace with the rest of the country in the home-electric technological arms-race. From that day on we were doomed to eat “baked” potatoes from the microwave just like the astronauts. They cooked so much faster! Ten minutes of wave bombardment and voila! Smashed with oleo and a payload of salt-n-pepper, this potato-paste was not even close to as tasty as my grandmother’s mashed potatoes, fried potatoes, scalloped potatoes, or home-cut french fries. I ate at least one potato dish nearly every day until I was 18. This is why in my adulthood I love rice, which was a foreign concept in our rural-midwestern community.
(Note: It’s only a cultural myth that the microwave came from NASA. Its origin lies in WWII radar research.)
Time heals all wounds. I have resurrected the baked potato.
Here’s how to make it:
1. Preheat oven. 450F. If you already have things in the oven (stews, roasts, bread), the potato can play second fiddle to the other concerns. It will just take a little longer or cook a little faster, though you probably shouldn’t push beyond 500F.
2. Pick your potato. Russets are great bakers. My grandmother swears by red potatoes and sometimes thinks that she’s been tricked into buying white potatoes that have been died. Yukon Golds are nice, too. The essential point is that it is a potato. This method works well for yams and sweet potatoes. Size matters. I like a medium sized potato that is roughly roundish, i.e. not knobby. If you are making more than one, pick them so that they are all nearly the same size or they will be done at different times and the littler ones will overcook.
3. Wash your potato. They grow in the dirt. I’m not talking merely getting them wet. Use a sponge and a bit of soap if you are dealing with grimy straight-from-the-ground potatoes. The cooking will sanitize anything that’s alive on them, but you’re going for taste. From-the-store potatoes are generally well cleaned before distribution.
4. Stick a fork in it, all over, trying to get the tines into its center. Be careful not to stab yourself. If you forget this step, it will just take the potato longer to bake.
5. This stage is the secret. Rub the skin with olive oil (no substitutes will equal the taste) and sprinkle it with a nice amount of sea salt. The oil will help with heat transfer to the skin and the salt will draw out moisture. Combined, these cooking methods will give you a perfectly crispy outer skin that tastes so good that it ends the debate over whether you should eat the skin or not. You should. (See step 3.)
6. Put it in the oven where there is room, right on the rack. You’ll need a drip pan on the shelf under them. (I keep an old pie pan that lost its surfacing around for tasks like this.) You do not want them resting on a cookie sheet because the point of contact will overcook them and maybe make that spot burn. You’re going for ambient heating, not direct-contact cooking.
7. Turn the potatoes once or forget about them. Near the 45 minute mark, check them. Give them a quick squeeze, right there in the oven. The skin will be crisp and the inside will have pulled away from it a bit. You want to squeeze it enough to feel if there is an easy give to the inside. If it feels hard, leave it for another 15 minutes and check it again. Note: if you do this quickly it won’t burn your fingers, especially if you have dragon fingers. If it hurts, don’t keep touching them. Wet your fingers down with cold water to remove the heat you’ve put in them, dry them, and then give the potatoes another squeeze. If they feel pulpy, proceed to step 8.
8. Plate. Put them on before anything else. Take the palm of your hand and give your potato a smash. If it is done, it will flatten out on the plate. Cut one slit along the length of it with a knife. Smoosh the two ends together. The potato will pop back up into shape, and will have a nice cavity to hold butter, sour cream, or your choice of exotic topping.
9. Eat potato.
If it isn’t done all the way when you smash it, eat it anyway and do better next time.
Baked potatoes take time so use it to your advantage. Have them in the oven while making a stew. Start them before you’re getting hungry for a snack. Think about all of the fun things you can do in the time it takes them to cook. At the very least, have a beer.
Don’t use foil, please. You want that moisture to escape for the crispy skin. These aren’t steamed potatoes, after all. If you want, you can use the foil to make a hat that will keep the alien microwaves out of your brain.