One of the weird side effects of living most of my life in New York City is that I'm deeply out of touch with significant aspects of the American experience. I know this in my bones: When I'm abroad and people ask where I'm from, my answer, instinctively, is not that I'm an American but that I'm a New Yorker.
One of the ways this manifests itself is through food. When I was a teenager, I did an Outward Bound trip in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. It was grueling: days upon days of off-trail backpacking, shooting a bearing with a map and compass, crawling on wet and muddy bellies through thickets of rhododendron so impenetrable, we took to calling them hell. We'd often hike nearly nonstop for 18 hours or more in search of a place to make camp.
Delirium set in during those late hours, after our flashlight batteries had died and our straining eyes saw things in the forest shadows that weren't there. Desperate talk of the foods we missed most would start around this time, too. The kids in my group all cried for Waffle House. I whined for dim sum. They had no idea what I was talking about, and I was just as perplexed by them.
This leads me to potato skins, a nationally adored bar snack common to suburban strip malls and TGI Fridays that, based on the handful of times I've eaten them, I've never found to be all that good. I know that smacks of the kind of elitism coastal urban dwellers like myself often get accused of, but I can just as easily argue that I have more clarity about a potato skin's shortcomings because my judgment isn't influenced by nostalgia.
I'll be direct: Traditional potato skins are no better than I'd expect oily russet jackets to be, which isn't all that good. Load 'em up, do what you want, but the fact remains that the underlying starchy tuber just isn't at its best like that. It's not as crispy on the outside, nor moist on the inside, as I want it to be. The results are even more disappointing with home-cook-targeted versions of the recipe that opt for the easier, oven-based method.
Of course, there are solutions—there's no reason a potato skin has to be mediocre. The first step is to treat potato skins like French fries by committing to deep-frying them. Beyond that, we need to rethink their form. I'm not against the long, canoe-like shape of a traditional potato skin, but cutting them the opposite way, into deeper cups, opens up a world of serving possibilities.
With a crunchy fried shell and ample cup, they take on new life. They can stand in for things like potato pancakes and blini to act as containers for sour cream or crème fraîche or a multitude of other cold fillings. Take that thought just one step further, and they can replace potato chips as scoops for dips and spreads. (See the linked recipes at the top and bottom of this article for just a few ideas.)
The details, of course, are what matter most. Simply dropping a hollowed-out potato into a deep fryer won't get you all the way there, since what comes out is often either leathery or (a side effect of pursuing a crispier crunch) too darkly fried. I've been working on a better method, and here's what I've found.
Most potato skins are made from russet potatoes, the same extra-starchy kind that are most often used for French fries, mashed potatoes, and baked potatoes. Russets (also known as Idaho potatoes) are the most common type in the United States, but that doesn't mean they're automatically the best for potato skins.
One of the biggest problems with using russets for potato skins is their extreme starchiness. It's perfect for French fries, yielding an airy and fluffy interior inside, and it makes lovely mashed potatoes for the same reason. But when left plain, the dryness of that high-starch, low-moisture flesh makes a russet one of the least pleasant potatoes to eat. That's why baked potatoes are best when absolutely saturated with butter, sour cream, and anything else that can mitigate the russet's natural texture.
Add to that a russet's inherently thin, papery skin—the supposed highlight of the dish—and things get even worse.
The standard treatment of potato skins tries to alleviate these problems with toppings like melted cheese and bacon bits. That all helps, but I don't think it does enough to save potato skins from themselves.
After rounds of side-by-side testing, I came to the conclusion that the first step to a better potato skin is to choose a different potato. Yukon Golds and other yellow varieties have more tender skins and a moist, waxy flesh that holds up on its own, even without the accoutrements. Because of that extra moisture, it can be difficult to get them crisp enough in the oven, but they can't withstand the mighty power of scalding oil.
By committing to deep-frying potato skins, we're free to use the right potato—a Yukon Gold—and get it as crispy as we want it.
Exploring Other Dimensions
This story didn't start with potato skins. It started with a dish of potato "husks," served at a Brooklyn restaurant called Glasserie. A few of my colleagues had fallen in love with them and were eager for a Serious Eats version of the recipe.
Their excitement about these husks was due only partially to the fact that the skins had been deep-fried. That in itself was not the most innovative thing about them—deep-fried potato skins are not a new idea. What really made them special was their form: Instead of halving the potatoes lengthwise to make canoe-shaped vessels, the restaurant had cut them across their equators to form smaller, but deeper, potato cups.
This made them easier to pick up and eat as a finger food, and it allowed them to function as scoops, which is exactly how the restaurant intended them, selling them alongside a variety of spreads and dips. It's a clever change that pushes the potato skin into potato-chip territory, each piece just the right size for a single scoop. Try it with the more traditional potato-skin shape, and you're forced to either double-dip or finish off the remainder of your potato skin plain, which—as we all know—no one really wants.
If you can find smaller potatoes—say, about five or six ounces (140 to 170 grams) each—that'll give you what I think is the perfect scoop size, but larger potatoes will work, too. This is true whether you use the skins as scoops or as pre-filled potato cups. If you do pre-fill them, you may want to consider slicing off just a bit of the bottom of each cup before you fry it, to make a level base for it to stand on without tipping over.
The main thing I wanted to figure out for my recipe was how to get a potato cup with maximum outer crispness and maximum inner moisture. I played with a variety of methods: par-baking the potatoes before frying; using Kenji's French fry method of parboiling them in salted and acidulated water before double-frying them; scooping and frying them from raw, without any par-cooking method; and both single- and double-frying the cups.
Par-Cooking: On a Par With the From-Raw Approach?
Before frying the potatoes, I first had to figure out whether par-cooking them was necessary. We know from Kenji's French fry experiments that parboiling French fries is an important step. I also figured that it might be easier to scoop the flesh from a par-cooked potato than from a raw one, so I added par-baking and microwaving to my list of methods to try.
My gut told me that the French fry method would be the best, given that I was essentially making a French-fried potato skin, but my testing didn't entirely support that. While I preferred the potatoes that were fried twice (as French fries are), I got just as good results from par-baking the potatoes (microwaving them works, too) as I did from parboiling them. And, since sending them on a quick trip to the oven or microwave is easier than setting up a salty and vinegary pot of water, that's what I settled on.
I was able to scoop and fry the potatoes from raw, but it was easier to scoop the ones that had grown more tender via a par-cooking step. Plus, I liked the rougher interior surface that I got from scooping out the cooked potatoes better than I liked the more perfectly flat and smooth interior I scraped away in the raw ones. Turns out, imperfection in the scooping step leads to a more interesting texture later.
Getting the Crispiest Shell
So far, I'd figured out that par-baking or microwaving the potatoes was the way to go, and I liked the results of double-frying more than single-frying. But I still wasn't getting the results I was after, which were potato skins crispy enough to justify the annoyance of deep-frying (let's be honest, deep-frying sucks). I sought my solution in a slurry of potato starch, into which I dipped each potato cup before frying.
The cups fried to crisp and crunchy shells, but, weirdly, they resisted browning, so each potato cup ended up with a white fried exterior. They also lacked an obvious potato character—clearly because potato starch is refined beyond the point of being recognizably potato-like in flavor.
At this point, Vicky, who was photographing all of my testing, asked why I didn't try using the scooped-out potato flesh to make the slurry. One of the dangers of being an expert is that when someone asks you a question you don't have an answer to, you're often tempted to pretend you do. I felt the urge to make something up ("Because you're saving that to make a side of mashed potatoes!"*). Instead, I admitted that I had no idea.
*Truth is, there's enough scooped-out flesh to make a slurry and a small side of mashed potatoes.
As it turned out, hers was the stroke of genius. A slurry made from the potato flesh is the ideal coating for a lacy and crispy coating on each potato cup that browns up beautifully, while looking and tasting like actual potato.
You can choose one of several ways to make the slurry. I found the easier way was to blend it with water, using an immersion blender, until it took on the consistency of applesauce—thick enough to lightly coat the potatoes, but not in an overly gloppy way. You could also do this in a countertop blender or food processor, or you could even mash the potatoes with a fork until you've formed a slurry (a few tiny lumps won't hurt).
One of the big side benefits of the slurry coating is that it crisps to a crunchy shell even faster than the plain potato does, helping to ensure that the final cup hasn't had every last ounce of inner moisture fried out of it. It truly does deliver the best of both worlds, a feat no oven-baked potato skin I've met could dream of.
Serve the fried cups on a plate or tray alongside dips like hummus, tzatziki, baba ganoush, or thick Greek yogurt or labneh. Or fill them with something tasty, like pulled pork (melting some cheese on top, too), or a big, creamy dollop of crème fraîche or sour cream, topped with a slice of smoked salmon. Or, just melt a whole lot of cheese right in the center of each cup.
The ideas are endless. Fry up your own and go wild.