"My idea of heaven is a great big baked potato and someone to share it with." Oprah Winfrey
As with meats, we are faced with a food whose center and skin need separate treatment. We want a soft, moist, fluffy inside, and a dry, crisp skin that nobody will leave aside. Once again, a 2-zone setup and reverse sear are the solution. And once again we learn that a good digital thermometer can answer the question "is it done?"
Russet Burbank potatoes are the big brown variety used by steakhouses because they have a stout skin that gets crunchy when baked properly, and although I love the flavor of Yukon Golds, their skin is thinner and they don't get that satisfying chew. It will not surprise you that I have tested the optimum doneness for baking potatoes and I find 205°F is the low end, al dente, a bit crunchy. At 212°F, they are moist, crumbly, fluffy. Amazingly, I have never seen a website or cookbook with a recipe that tells you what temp is optimal for a baked potato. They just give cooking times and temps, and, as regular readers know, this is inaccurate because oven temps are rarely accurate, not to mention grills, and the thickness of the potato is what dictates cooking time.
You can get there by just baking them, but that leaves the skin tender and papery. I like it with a bit of crunch. And you can't get there in the microwave. I know you are in a hurry, but the microwave heats unevenly and you end up with al dente and dry spots in the same spud. You also end up with blah soft skin.
If you wrap them in foil so everything steams, including the skin. I'm guessing this less than satisfactory shortcut was invented by a restaurateur who didn't want to wait an hour. A better shortcut is about five minutes in the microwave on high, and then a short trip through a hot 450°F oven or grill for about 15 minutes. This is better than cooking it in the microwave alone, but again the skin is just too tender for me.
To get the skin perfect you need radiant heat, not hot air. Throwing them right on hot coals is popular, but you're probably going to burn them, and if you want a mouthful of carbon, just butter up a Kingsford briquet. Putting the spud above the direct heat of a grill is the ultimate solution to a crisp skin. We'll get to a recipe, but first, let's bust a myth.
Mythbusting the potato nail
Another shortcut, in theory, is the nail trick. The theory is that, if you drive a nail through the potato, it will conduct heat to the center and cook it faster.
To test the theory, the ever inquisitive AmazingRibs.com science advisor, Prof. Greg Blonder, bought a commercial stainless steel spud nail kit advertised to reduce cooking time up to 50%. Did it work? "Well, if you think 10% counts as 'up to 50%', it does speed up cooking. But hardly worth the effort."
It seems that steel is just not conductive enough to make a difference. Keep in mind the potato is mostly water, and the mass of cold water in the spud can counterract the small amount of heat coming through the skinny nail. On the other hand, a copper nail will do the job much better because copper conducts heat so much better. That's why many pots and pans have copper in their bottoms.
To demonstrate the point, Blonder broke out his computer simulator and ran a copper nail against a stainless nail and a glass rod. In the illustration, blue is cold, red is hot. But don't go out and buy a copper rod. Copper reacts with water chemically and can discolor the potato and make it unsafe to eat. This myth is busted. Click here for details on Blonder's experiments.
Here are two recipes, one for once baked potatoes, one for twice baked potatoes.
1) Murphies: Once baked potatoes on the grill
In diner slang, Murphies are baked potatoes. Here's how I recommend you make Murphies on the grill, a tool that surpasses the oven. This method calls for slicing them before baking so the cut edges get crispy.
Takes. 1 hour 45 minutes.
1 large Russet Burbank potato
Spice blend of your choice
4 tablespoons butter (salted or unsalted)
About the butter. It doesn't matter if you use salted or un. And I know you're thinking bacon fat. I won't tell.
1) Read my article on the Science of Potatoes.
2) With a brush or scrubby sponge devoid of soap, rub the skins to remove all dirt, but not so hard to remove the skins. Cut out any bad spots. Slice them in half lengthwise. Sniff them carefully. Nothing is worse than a musty potato.
3) While they are wet, generously sprinkle your favorite spice rub all over. If the rub does not have salt, sprinkle table salt on too. Table salt is better than big grained salt because it will dissolve and diffuse into the potato faster. Let them sit at room temp for 15 to 30 minutes so the salt will melt and begin migrating towards the center.
4) Set up a grill for 2-zone cooking and shoot for 325°F in the indirect zone. If you are in a hurry you can pre-cook them in the microwave them for 5 minutes on high. Not any longer or you will not get a good papery skin. The baking on the grill will take as little as 30 minutes after microwaving.
5) Put them on the indirect heat side of the grill and let them bake, cut side up, lid down, for about 90 minutes until the temp in the centers is about 190°F. The edges, which are thinner, will be a little higher.
6) Melt the butter in the microwave in about 30 seconds to a minute, each oven will vary, and paint them all over with the butter. Move them to the direct heat side, cut side down, and let the cut side brown in the direct radiant heat, lid down, for about two minutes until they start to get golden, but don't continue painting them if you want crispy skins. Then roll them over and brown the skin sides.
7) Remove them from the heat and they should be in that 200°F range. Goldilocks! If you like a little al dente crunch, pull them at 200°F. If you want them really fluffy under the crust, take them to 210°F. Bring them in, mash the contents with a fork, and dress them. Here are some fun ways to gussy up a spud:
- Purists (who me?) use only butter or sour cream, or both, with salt and pepper and perhaps a sprinkling of chopped fresh chives or green onions. The adventurous will add broccoli florets, fresh thyme, fresh dill weed, fresh basil, or cowboy candy.
- Here's one of my all-time favorites: Splashes of malt vinegar. That's right, just plain malt vinegar. Tons of flavor, zero calories. If you've ever been to England, you've tasted fish and chips with malt vinegar. Balsamic or sherry vinegar work, but not nearly as well.
- For a fun change of place, try Crema Mexicana, which is similar to sour cream, or try my recipe for horseradish cream sauce.
- Make lemon butter by melting butter, squeezing in a bit of lemon juice, and whisking together thoroughly. One lemon per stick of butter is a good ratio. Or skip the juice and just mix in the zest of the lemon.
- Or you can go the cheese route with a few dollops of home made boursin (a favorite of mine), pimento cheese spread, fresh chevre (a light creamy tart goat cheese), crumbled blue cheese, or shredded cheddar.
- Stir in pesto, tomato salsa, caramelized onions, home made ketchup.
- Go crazy and top it with bacon, lobster, shrimp, pulled pork, chopped brisket, hot dog chili, or chopped hard boiled eggs with chopped onions.
- Caviar anyone?
2) Twice baked potatoes
This method calls for leaving the potatoes whole before baking. We want the interiors fluffy, not crispy as the recipe above.
Preparation time. 90 minutes
1 tablespoon of Simon & Garfunkel Rub
1/2 cup sour cream
2 baking potatoes, preferably Burbank Russets
4 tablespoons cheddar cheese, shredded
1) Mix the spices with the sour cream before you start cooking so the water in the sour cream will reconstitute the dried herbs. Refrigerate.
2) Prepare the potatoes as described above. Bake the potatoes whole over indirect heat at about 325°F for about 90 minutes or more until they hit about 200°F in the center. Remove from the grill, slice in half lengthwise, scoop the meat from the shells and place in a bowl. Add the sour cream and mix it in with a fork leaving it a litle lumpy. Don't use a blender or you risk making it too mushy (you get the sticky starches aggravated and you end up with a plasticy glue). Spoon the mixture back into the shells, sprinkle with the cheese, and put back on the grill over direct heat until the skin begins to darken and the cheese melts.