Baked potatoes can be a wonder to behold, all soft, fluffy, and snowy-white. They're also bland as bland as bland can be.
I don't say this to malign the potato—alongside wheat, rice, and corn, the starchy tuber is crucial to sustaining the world's population, which is no small claim. And, when combined with salt and fat, the potato can become one of the greatest culinary indulgences on earth.
But have you ever tried to eat a plain baked potato? It's not enjoyable. That's why we heap on toppings like butter, sour cream, bacon, and cheese. The problem, though, is that, much like trying to soup up a station wagon with blinged-out hubcaps, addressing the overall blandness of a baked potato requires more than just a surface treatment. No matter how fully loaded a plain baked potato may be, there's still an expanse of unspectacular spud beneath.
Luckily, it's a problem that can be tackled in two relatively easy steps. The first requires determining the best way to bake a potato, which I'll describe below. The second is to serve it the best possible way, which, in my opinion, is roughly mashed, with butter and seasonings. Ideally, this is accomplished by scooping out the potato, mixing it up in a bowl, and then spooning the mash back into the skins (though, in a pinch, you can mash the butter and seasonings into the flesh right on the serving plate). Then you can go ahead and add your toppings, and even twice-bake the potato if you want. But, as you'll see, the latter is of less importance than you might think.
Start With a Potato, and Cook It
Just about every baked potato in the United States is made with a russet potato, a starchy variety with a thick, papery skin. When cooked, the pectin holding the russet's cells together breaks down easily, resulting in a more powdery, granular texture. Many people will tell you that the russet is hands down the best potato for baking. And, while I'd agree that it's a great choice, I wouldn't go quite so far—on a recent trip to the UK, I ate a baked potato made from a much moister, waxier variety, and it was sublime. Of course, the fact that it was drenched in butter didn't hurt.
Still, the russet is a classic, and ultimately the type I'm most likely to grab when I'm planning to bake some potatoes.
Rule 1: Puncture It
The prevailing wisdom calls for puncturing the potato in several spots with a fork or paring knife, since there's a small risk that an unvented potato will explode from pent-up steam. I've never seen this happen firsthand—probably because we always punctured the potatoes in the restaurants where I worked—but Kenji says he once saw a potato blow up in the face of a chef he worked for.
Conclusion: Put some holes in the skin, for safety's sake.
Rule 2: Don't Wrap It
Some folks like to wrap their potatoes in foil before baking them. That makes sense if you're cooking in the embers of a campfire, but when I tested a foil wrapping in the oven, all it did was produce soggy skins. You'll get much better results if you leave the potato unwrapped and expose its skin to the oven's dry heat.
Rule 3: Use a Moderate Oven
After experimenting with a variety of oven temperatures, I found roughly 350 to 375°F to be the ideal range, producing a properly crisped skin and a creamy, fluffy interior in about an hour. Any hotter, and the potato will tend to develop a tough, dry, browned layer under the skin. Any cooler, and it will take longer than I'm usually willing to wait.
If you're pressed for time, I've gotten very good results by microwaving the potato for five minutes, then finishing it in a very hot, 450°F oven for about 20 minutes. That high heat will help the skin crisp in a much shorter window of time.
Rule 4: Oil It
I found that rubbing the potato with oil before baking it makes a significant difference in the texture and flavor of the skin. Without oil, the skin becomes leathery and tough and seems thicker; it also tastes faintly of a swamp. That may be some people's idea of a good potato skin, but it's not mine.
With a coating of oil, though, the skin becomes tender and slightly crisp; you can bite or cut through it easily, and the flavor is much better. You can use a neutral type like canola, or a flavored one like olive—ultimately, it won't make a huge difference once the potato is loaded with toppings. Just avoid using butter, since its water content reduces the amount of crisping you'll get (though clarified butter would be great).
Rule 5: Use a Rack (Even the Oven's Works)
The final consideration is where to set the potato in the oven. Baking sheets are your worst bet, since they're made out of conductive metals, like aluminum, that brand the potatoes with dark burned spots. Some recipes suggest setting the potato on a bed of salt instead, but I've tested that before, and, while it reduces the hot-spot issue, it's mostly just a waste of salt, since it doesn't noticeably season the flesh.
The best method I've found is to set the potato on a wire rack set over a baking sheet, which keeps the spud elevated and allows air to circulate all around for even cooking. If you don't have such a rack, you can put the potatoes directly onto an oven rack. Assuming you've oiled the potatoes, though, I'd recommend putting a sheet of foil on the rack below, just in case of drips. (Even lightly oiled potatoes can drip as the oil becomes more fluid in the heat.)
Finish It Right
You can determine when the potato is fully baked by sliding a fork into its center. If it slides in with absolutely no resistance, it's done.
I like to let it rest a few minutes at this point so that it's a little easier to handle. Then I split it open from end to end and scoop out the flesh into a mixing bowl.
Yes, this is somewhat fussy. No, you don't have to do it. You can, for instance, gently squeeze the potato in its skin to break up the flesh, then slice it open and jam some pats of butter down into the center. That'll be good, but it won't be great, because that method will never ensure that the butter—let alone any salt you sprinkle on top—reaches all the places it needs to.
You can also skip the scooping step and just fork-mash the butter right into each potato half. I have no real objections to this, aside from the fact that it'll look like two flattened and smashed potato halves.
For a more textbook baked-potato look, and to get sufficient buttering and seasoning throughout, scooping is the only real solution. I add butter, salt, and pepper to the mixing bowl and lightly mash it all together. When I want a truly satisfying meal, though, I actually like to cook two potatoes, scooping out the flesh of both and then piling the mash into the skin of just one of them. It ends up looking like one gloriously overstuffed, massive baked potato. That said, you're free to be a little less piggy than me and serve one potato per person—this method will work either way.
Using your hands, you can form the potato-stuffed skins back into a perfect baked-potato shape. Then add whatever you want, like grated cheese, scallions, chives, sour cream, and crispy bacon bits. If you want to melt the cheese, you can throw the potato back in the oven with the grated cheese on top (making it a "twice-baked" potato, an overwrought description for something that's just getting briefly reheated), or use a torch to melt it quickly on the countertop.
Most importantly, don't hold back. A fully loaded baked potato isn't meant to be a light and tidy meal—it should be rich, hearty, filling, and flavorful.