You can prepare a potato in countless ways—from pan-roasting to squashing—but the easiest, by far, is baking. Today, we’re going to cover baked potato basics, answer frequently asked questions, and share our favorite toppings (yes, bacon is one of them).
Though any given supermarket will sell a more modest selection, there are hundreds of potato species out there, distinguished by color, shape, and, most notably, starch content. Generally speaking, you can break down potatoes into three categories: high starch (also known as baking potatoes), medium starch (also known as all-purpose potatoes), and low starch (also known as waxy potatoes).
Your ears probably perked up at high starch (also known as baking potatoes), and rightfully so. Potatoes with lots of starch and little moisture—namely, russets, which also go by Idahos—are many cooks’ go-to pick for baking, myself included.
In The Food Lab, J. Kenji López-Alt writes that russets are “best” for baking whole because they turn out “fluffy and moist with thick, crisp-chewy skin.” The Joy of Cooking echoes as much, calling russets “the best bakers.”
Of course, you could bake other potato varieties, such as Yukon golds or fingerlings whole, but their lower starch and higher moisture will yield a denser, stickier, and wetter interior.
A potato’s starch content determines how it cooks. According to food science authority Harold McGee, the more starch, the more “the cells tend to swell and separate from each other, producing a fine, dry, fluffy texture,” perfect for topping with a pat of butter or spoonful of sour cream. Meanwhile, in lower-starch potatoes, “cells cohere,” which is why some people prefer waxy varieties for recipes like a gratin, where you want the layers to stick together.
If you’re baking a potato whole, no. The skin acts as a protective layer (think of it like a coat), enabling the potato take care of itself.
If you’re chopping a potato and baking it in pieces—most recipes refer to this as roasted versus baked, though both methods take place in the oven—parboiling in advance is a good idea. As our resident Genius Kristen Miglore pointed out when writing about Molly Yeh’s roasted potatoes, the benefits here are twofold: 1) “Boiling in salty water seasons the potatoes all the way through in a way that a cloak of fat and salt on a raw potato can’t.” 2) “Boiling brings some of the potatoes’ starches—or I should say: ‘a dehydrated layer of gelatinized starch’—to the surface, so they get even crispier in the oven.”
1. Heat the oven anywhere from 400°F to 450°F. It goes without saying: The former will take longer, the latter will go quicker. Anything below 400°F will yield a subpar skin texture and anything above 450°F will risk a burnt outside and undercooked center.
2. Rinse and scrub the potato. Spuds come from the dirt—which is to say, they’re dirty. While some potato recipes call for peeling (like these double-garlic mashed), whole potatoes should be baked skin-on. Not only does this naturally insulate the flesh, but it turns into an A+ crust.
3. Prick the potato a few times with a fork or paring knife. Legend has it that if you don’t prick a potato before baking, the steam will have nowhere to escape and the potato will—pow!—explode. We ran an experiment in our test kitchen to confirm this and ended up with zero exploding potatoes (the folks at Cooks’ Illustrated yielded the same results). Even so, we say: If the step takes only two seconds, why risk it?
4a. Bake the potato directly on an oven rack. Think of this as the low-key approach, no special equipment or additional ingredients needed. The potato is done when a knife easily pierces the flesh, with little resistance.
4b. Oil and salt the potato, then bake on a sheet pan. An unoiled potato still turns out crispy skin, but it can’t be salted (because there’s nothing for the salt to stick to). Rubbing the potato with a small amount of neutral-flavor, high-heat oil (such as canola) means you can salt it all over, creating a well-seasoned crust that’s as addictive as the fluffy middle. The potato is done when a knife easily pierces the flesh, with little resistance.
5. Immediately cut the potato open, dress up, and dig in. Use a small, sharp knife to cut a 1-inch or so slit in the top of the potato, then carefully squeeze it from both ends to fluff up the interior. Top with whatever you want (more on that below), then eat hot.
Wait, do I need to wrap my baked potato in foil? No. Not only does wrapping a potato in foil before baking provide no noticeable benefits, but it can cause the skin to steam instead of crisp. Save the foil for something else.
Ovens and microwaves yield very different baked potatoes, so don’t expect the same results. Here are the pros and cons to consider:
Oven: Crispy skin, fluffy interior. Takes 40 minutes to an hour. Low risk of exploding.
Microwave: Soft skin, dense interior. Takes less than 10 minutes. Higher risk of exploding.
Takeaway: If you’re a pinch, a microwave can be a quick route toward a filling snack or dinner side. If you have time to spare, use the oven for optimal results.
Method: Rinse and scrub the potato. Poke it all over with a fork or paring knife. Rub with oil and sprinkle with salt, or don’t. Place on a plate and microwave for 5 to 10 minutes, flipping halfway through (use tongs! The potato will be super hot), until knife-tender.