Potato

How to Bake a Potato, According to Our Test Kitchen

September  4, 2019
Photo by Bobbi Lin

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).


Which Type of Potato Is Best for Baking?

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.”

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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.

But Why Is Starch So Important?

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.

Do I Need to Parboil a Potato Before Baking It?

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.”

How to Bake a Whole Potato 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.

How to Bake a Whole Potato in the Microwave

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.

Our Favorite Baked Potato Toppings

  • Butter pat. Bonus points if the butter is salted and at room temperature.
  • Grated cheese. Preferably something sharp and intense, like cheddar or aged Gouda.
  • Crispy bacon. But what’s the best way to crisp bacon? Glad you asked.
  • Sour cream or Greek yogurt. Preferably whole-milk yogurt, which has creamier, richer flavor.
  • Fresh herbs. Especially finely chopped chives or scallions.
  • Tuna, chickpea, or egg salad. To turn a baked potato into a meal, treat it like toast and top with something hearty. Even better with a tuft of baby arugula and squeeze of lemon on top.
  • Guacamole. Avocado potato is the new avocado toast? Let’s go with it.

Baked Potato Recipes

This post contains products that are independently selected by our editors, and Food52 may earn an affiliate commission. What are your best baked potato tips? Let us know in the comment section below.
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Emma is a writer and recipe developer at Food52. Before this, she worked a lot of odd jobs, all at the same time. Think: stir-frying noodles "on the fly," baking dozens of pastries at 3 a.m., reviewing restaurants, and writing articles about everything from how to use leftover mashed potatoes to the history of pies in North Carolina. Now she lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with her husband and their cat, Butter. Stay tuned every Tuesday for Emma's cooking column, Big Little Recipes, all about big flavor and little ingredient lists. And see what she's up to on Instagram and Twitter at @emmalaperruque.

14 Comments

Rob September 15, 2019
There is another way: microwave the potato first, then put in very hot oven (perhaps painting the potato with olive oil or your choice of oil/fat beforehand). This speeds up getting the center hot, but also achieves the necessary baked potato nirvana of a crisp outer skin that can be eaten!
 
Foodsitejunkie September 15, 2019
I have had a potato explode. Not only does it thickly cover every surface and crack, it dries on immediately. I learned to poke baked potatoes the hard way. Save yourself a whole day of oven cleaning.
 
NancyFromKona September 15, 2019
Not included in the helpful article above: use smaller Russets. Our local grocery has both individual huge Russets and bags of 4” Russets and we found the small ones not only cook faster but taste/texture better.

Think I’m going to try rubbing them with bacon fat! Thanks.
 
Andria September 15, 2019
You won't regret the bacon fat, I promise!
 
Andria September 15, 2019
I can't believe no one has suggested the only true way to bake a potato: rub the skin with bacon fat before putting it in the oven. The skin is even crispier, plus, you know, everything is better with bacon. What else are you saving that bacon fat for?
 
Shawna September 15, 2019
In the 45 years I have been baking bare-skinned russets directly on my oven rack at 410° F, not one had exploded until a month ago! And even after that episode (in full denial), I was refusing to pierce the skins with a fork before baking. My boyfriend thought that was silly of me, and now he enters the kitchen at the point just before I place them on the rack and insists on piercing the skins with a fork himself. It’s probably because he, selfishly, doesn’t want to experience me cursing and hunched over the interior oven for half an hour muscling sticky, heat-adhered potato guts. Potatoes - the pied piper of my kitchen.
 
trvlnsandy September 15, 2019
Olive oil and salt. Yum.
When we do use the microwave with a potato for eating as a 'baked potato' we start in the microwave and then finish up in the oven (we use a toaster oven with convection) to obtain that crisp skin.
 
Davidw3673 September 10, 2019
Don’t forget grilling! If I’m grilling anyway, why bother heating up the oven? Same process, except I use olive oil and kosher salt. Takes the same time, 45 min or so, and you’re right there watching the steaks!
 
Ed C. September 10, 2019
Toppings, eh? You haven't yet discovered cultured butter, then. Run - don't walk - to Trader Joe's - grab one of those dull blue packages from Brittany on the French coast - and enter a new level of buttery taste and texture.
 
miriamnz September 8, 2019
An aluminium baking nail, or a gadget with four prongs for four potatoes, halves the cooking time.
 
HalfPint September 5, 2019
Mayo is also a good topping. To some it might sound gross and it did to me upon a time. Then my roommate made her aunt's baked potato topped with light mayo (yep, double ewww), black olives, and pepperoncini (or banana peppers). And it was DELICIOUS! With the vinegary sharpness from the peppers and the saltiness of the olives, It was creamy and tangy yummy-ness. No weird jarred mayo flavor, much less low-fat mayo. It was in essence my favorite potato salad.
 
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Emma L. September 5, 2019
That sounds sooooo good. Must try immediately.
 
Frodis September 4, 2019
Over a lifetime's (so far) experience of baking potatoes, I have witnessed the explosion of a potato in the oven exactly one time. Once. (Result: Hash-browns all over the inside of the oven.) So, while the odds of a potato exploding would be small, the chance is not zero.
 
jpriddy September 15, 2019
Thank you for saying this. I've seen it more than twice, pricked by a fork or not. Potatoes can explode. This is not a "legend" and pricking does not prevent it.