Memorable baked potatoes start with choosing the best potatoes for the job. Russet potatoes, also referred to as Idaho or baking potatoes, are ideal for baking. This variety gets its name from the rough, thick, reddish-brown skin that makes a sturdy jacket for a baked potato. The white interior is starchy, mealy, and dry, which becomes fluffy and light when baked. Look for potatoes that have smooth, unblemished skins and a firm texture. Russets are oblong in shape and can be quite large. Avoid potatoes with a green color on the skin, which can cause a bitter taste and can be harmful in large amounts.
Tip: Store potatoes in a dark, cool, well-ventilated place for up to several weeks. Do not store them in the refrigerator.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. With a stiff produce brush, scrub potatoes thoroughly under cool running water to remove any dirt. Remove any sprouts (also called eyes) and any green areas with the tip of a potato peeler or a small knife.
Prick the potatoes on all sides with a fork. This will allow the steam to release as the potatoes bake. The potatoes are now ready to bake directly on the oven rack. If you prefer softer skins, rub the potatoes all over with a thin coating of shortening, butter, or cooking oil, and wrap each potato separately in foil before baking. Bake the potatoes until tender (allow 40 to 60 minutes for 6- to 8-ounce potatoes).
Tip: You can also adjust the oven temperature to 350 degrees F to accommodate other items in the oven. Increase the baking time to 70 to 80 minutes for 6- to 8-ounce potatoes.
Cool potatoes about 15 minutes. If baked in foil, remove the foil. To loosen and slightly mash the flesh, roll each potato gently under a towel. Using a sharp knife, cut an X into the top of each potato. With your fingers, press in and up on the ends of each potato to open. Now you are ready to top the potatoes as desired.
For main-dish potatoes, consider a potato bar with assorted toppings so everyone can design their own potatoes. Or choose from one of these favorite combos:
- Warmed chili, shredded cheddar cheese, and sliced green onions
- Crumbled blue cheese, sour cream, snipped fresh chives, and crumbled cooked bacon
- Chopped cooked ham, steamed broccoli, and shredded Gouda cheese or Swiss cheese
- Sauteed sliced onion, sweet pepper strips, halved mushrooms, and sliced zucchini
- Sour cream, salsa, and snipped fresh cilantro