The love for potatoes is embedded in my blood. Growing up on farmland in the rural countryside of southwest Virginia, potatoes were invariably a side dish served at dinner every day throughout the week. If you heard the sound of a sudden, loud sizzle emanating from the kitchen, and you made a bet on predicting that noise was being caused by sliced potatoes hitting hot lard in a cast iron skillet, then you would be correct nine times out of ten.
Potatoes are one of the most versatile foods in the world. You can deep-fry them, shallow-fry them, bake them, boil them, grill them, smoke them low and slow… the possibilities are virtually endless. The way Bubba in the movie Forrest Gump feels about shrimp (at the 1:16 mark) is how I feel about potatoes.
Potatoes have received a bad rap in the modern fad that is otherwise known as keto, low-carb and Atkins diet related dietary lifestyles*. That is a shame, because not only are potatoes highly nutritious (bananas are known for being high in potassium, but a medium-sized potato contains over double the amount of potassium) but they are incredibly satiating, which is especially useful if you are currently living on a caloric deficit with the goal of dropping fat from your body. Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player to ever lace up a pair of sneakers and step onto a court, would eat a 23-ounce steak with a baked potato before every single basketball game (source). Before you say, “You are using a former professional basketball player, who burned through the carbohydrates quickly, as a way to promote carbs, and that is a hyperbolic example,” consider yourself — if you are active and watching after what you eat, it is easy enough for you to burn through the same on a daily basis. Anyhow, sweet potatoes are another nutritious starchy tuber, but that is neither here nor there.
* – I don’t mean to bash low-carb dieting, but there are downsides to it. While it is a useful weight loss strategy given that — unless you are consuming high amounts of sodium — your body will shed water weight quickly in the first week or two of starting the diet, it can spike a stress response via heightened cortisol levels in the body due to the absence of carbohydrates, as carbs naturally lower cortisol by temporarily raising your blood sugar levels. You may not ‘feel’ this rise in cortisol levels, as high cortisol may even produce a perceived sense of increased energy and awareness since a stress response lends itself to such a phenomenon. This is why you may hear people who champion low-carb diets say they feel more energy. When you hear people talk about the ‘dreaded crash’ after eating a meal high in carbohydrates, part of the reason one ‘crashes’ from a high carb meal is due to cortisol levels being reduced. Furthermore, and this is just a warning: high cortisol levels will age the body faster than normal. Also, if you are a man — unless you are a diabetic or otherwise insulin resistant — carbohydrate intake is essential for testosterone production. Source: Carbohydrates and Testosterone – Anabolic Men
In my biased opinion, potatoes are the single greatest carbohydrate source known to man, and if I’m wrong in overly stating my opinion as a quasi-fact, then I don’t want to be right. But I digress.
How to Bake Potatoes With a Crispy Skin
Recently, while browsing around the web, I saw a myriad of posts coming from a food-based website where people were lamenting their struggles as it pertains to achieving a crispy skin in the realm of baked potatoes. Frustrated, the posters exclaimed how they had tried everything to induce a crispy skin on their oven-baked potatoes, from rubbing them in butter or canola oil or olive oil to salting them. They pondered if their ovens were the problem or whether or not the potatoes were potentially somehow the source of the issue.
I, myself, do not rub my potatoes in butter, canola nor olive oil. I preheat my oven to 350 degrees while I wash, clean and dry the potatoes, which is what you will see in every recommendation. I will also either prick my potatoes with a fork or ‘stab’ them with a knife in order to allow the steam from the potatoes to rise and vent during the cook (extremely important). However, I have two tricks when it comes to my method for creating the crispiest baked potatoes on this earth:
Use a cast iron skillet
Cast iron heats up quickly and evenly. I have noticed that a lot of people prefer to sit their potatoes directly on the middle rack of their respective ovens, but that can be a little messy unless you have a liner to catch the drippings from the oil that has been rubbed onto the skin of the potato. If you want to, you can preheat the cast iron in the oven while you prepare the potatoes for cooking, but I find that to be optional, given the time the potatoes will be spending in the oven. A cast iron pan will effectively retain heat and allow for even cooking.
Rub the potato with rendered bacon fat
This is paramount. When I was reading about how people are using butter and vegetable oils to rub all over their potatoes, I was perturbed, as arguably the best fat source anybody can use to achieve a crispy skin on baked potatoes is bacon grease. Growing up, my mother always stored the rendered bacon fat in a jar and then she would use it to cook over things (ever tried stovetop-popped popcorn? I highly recommend it). Being from the south, maybe this is a regional thing. I cringe whenever I hear about people throwing out the rendered fat after frying bacon (so wasteful).
The reason bacon fat is superior to the cooking oils mentioned, at least when it comes to baked potato perfection, is because it contains remnants of salt leftover from the bacon. The salt will help dry the skin of the potatoes during the cook, and this is important, because as the potato cooks up the steam from the moisture being heated as the internal temperature of a potato will inevitably make contact with the skin, and the salt aids in drying that up, crisping the skin from the heat of the cast iron as well as the ambient temperature of the oven.
If you don’t have any stored bacon fat (come on — start staving it), have no fear. Fry up a few pieces of bacon. You can use this to your advantage when you are ready to eat your potatoes by chopping up the bacon and topping the potatoes with it. Allow the hot grease to cool a bit, or you can use a brush to carefully coat the skin of the potatoes.
After you have rubbed the potatoes with the bacon grease and subsequently added them to your cast iron pan, moderately salt the top of the potato. I’m tempted to label this suggestion as optional, as there is already salt (from the bacon grease seeping down) within the potatoes, but a light sprinkle of sea salt (or iodized table salt, if that is what you have) doesn’t hurt. My promise to you is that it will not be too salty.
Baking the Potatoes
In summary, keeping the above information in mind along with information on the finish:
1.) Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Preheat the cast iron pan if you would like, but it isn’t necessary. Wash, clean and dry the potatoes. Prick with a fork or ‘stab’ them with a knife to allow proper venting for the steam.
2.) Rub the potatoes in bacon grease and salt the top with sea salt or table salt.
3.) Cook for one hour. Flip the potatoes over halfway through.
4.) (Optional step) Crank up the heat to 375-400 degrees in the final 15-20 minutes of the cook.
5.) Remove from the oven, eat and enjoy. Prepare your potato the way you like it, from topping it with butter to sour cream to bacon bits to diced green onions or chives to plain Greek yogurt.