How to bake a potato

A baked potato is the opposite of a holiday romance. Whereas Alfredo may seem altogether less tempting standing on your doorstep than he did in a more exotic setting, a baked potato is a pleasure that always works best at home.

Unlike most other simple culinary ideas – the sandwich, for instance – the baked potato is fiendishly difficult to commercialise. Some of the greatest minds in the restaurant trade have tried and failed.

Even the King Midas of hospitality, Nick Jones, had a go. Before he started Soho House, Babington House, Pizza East, Chicken Shop, and pretty much every other cool joint in the country, Jones attempted to roll out a chain of restaurants called “Over the Top”. One of its signature dishes was a baked potato with a choice of 10 toppings poured “over the top”. Each topping was named after a mountain, in keeping with the theme. “Kilimanjaro was my favourite choice,” Nick tells me. “It had a strong taste of Bisto. Even today, if I get a faint whiff, it takes me right back.”

Sadly for Nick – but happily for the customers of his current stable – the chain did not catch on. He was fighting one of the immutable laws of the universe: baked spuds only taste good at home.

mashing the potato filling
You can scoop the mash out of the potato, mix it up with the filling and return it to the skin before baking. Photograph: Jill Mead/Guardian

I don’t know exactly why. Perhaps it’s because they demand a level of simplicity – verging on neglect – that is simply beyond a professional cook. Which restaurant would have the nerve to serve a baked potato the way my wife likes it best: totally naked except for a lump of butter and a crunch of salt?

All this is good news for the novice cook. However limited your skills, you are probably the best person to make your baked potato. Even so, there are a few simple rules of thumb that you can follow to maximise the likelihood of the perfect spud – crunchy on the outside and fluffy, almost creamy, on the inside.

Choose big floury spuds, such as Maris Piper or King Edward. The waxy varieties won’t do at all.

Preheat your oven to a fiery 210C/425F/gas mark 7.

Wash your spuds, and while damp sprinkle on some coarse sea salt. Do not oil them! Oiling creates a thin, insufficiently crispy skin (sometimes even soft), rather than the course crunchiness of the perfect spud.

Don’t bother pricking them. You only do this to “stop them exploding”. I have never seen such a thing happen. I’m inclined to think it’s an urban myth. And if not, it would be exciting to find out. Feel free to reveal any stories below.

After an hour, squeeze them. The outside should be crunchy, but should give. Go too long and they will get dry inside. This bit takes a bit of experience. If in doubt, cut a little bit out and taste it.

Don’t put your potato anywhere near a microwave. It will never achieve true crunchiness. If you need to cook it fast, cut it in half lengthways.

It is hard to beat butter, baked beans and cheese as a topping, but it’s not impossible. Here are some of my collaborator Jane Baxter’s favourites. What are yours? NB: Jane likes to scoop out the flesh of the potato, mix it with the filling and then refill it. Indulgent.

baked potato filling
Whichever filling you choose, it’s hard to beat the simple yet classic combo of cheese and beans. Photograph: Jill Mead/Guardian

Leeks and blue cheese. Roughly chop 4 leeks and cook gently in a little butter and olive oil with some shredded sage until soft.

Add to the flesh from the 4 potatoes and mash well together. Mix in about 100g crumbled blue cheese, a dash of cream, some chopped parsley and season well. Return to the skins, pack down and bake in a hot oven for about 5-10 minutes. Leeks can also be teamed with different mustards and cheddar.

Smoked fish and horseradish. Mix 150g shredded smoked trout fillets with the potato flesh along with 2 tbsp creamed horseradish, a dollop of sour cream, chopped chives and an egg yolk. Mix, season well and return to the potato shells. Sprinkle with cayenne pepper and cook in a hot oven for 10 minutes.

Pizza flavours. Scoop out the potato flesh and mix it with 2 tbsp good olive oil. Mash together and season well. Place in the potato shells and top with a good tomato sauce mixed with chopped olives, capers, anchovy fillets and shredded basil. Drizzle with more olive oil, sprinkle with parmesan and bake in a hot oven for 10 minutes.

Chowder flavours. Cook 200g smoked haddock in a little milk. Mash the potato flesh roughly with a little of the milk and combine with the flaked fish, cooked corn, cooked chopped spinach and chopped chives. Spoon into the potato shells and sprinkle with gruyere before rebaking as above.

Recipes by Jane Baxter. Henry Dimbleby is the co‑founder of the natural fast-food restaurant chain Leon (@henry_leon)

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