Steamy baked potatoes play the role of classic sidekick in a steak dinner and hold their own as entrees for a casual meal. Many cooks use the tines of a fork to poke holes in raw potatoes before baking them. The holes don't make them cook any faster -- a medium-sized potato takes more than an hour to bake -- but there are other ways to speed up their cooking time.
The Science Behind Baked Potatoes
Raw potatoes are stuffed with starch granules. These granules absorb moisture, turn it into steam and get bigger, forcing the granules to expand and form a porous surface that soaks up such toppings as butter, sour cream and cheese. Poking holes in a potato before you bake it provides an escape hatch for the steam that builds up inside a potato while it cooks. Without them, a potato might explode during cooking and make a mess inside your oven.
Fast-Finish Baking Tips
Piercing the potato skin doesn't make the baking process go any faster, but there are tips that can reduce the amount of baking time involved. Potatoes can be partially baked for a few minutes in the microwave and finished in the oven. Sticking a metal meat skewer or nail through a potato shortens the cooking time because the hot metal radiates heat to the center of the spud.You can also cut the baking time in half by splitting raw potatoes lengthwise and cooking them on a baking sheet, skin side up. Wrapping potatoes in aluminum foil doesn't cook them faster, but it does keep them warm longer after cooking.
Your microwave can save the day if you need to bake potatoes in a hurry. To cook a pair of potatoes, carve out a 1-inch-deep, 1/8-inch-thick sliver from end to end in each potato to let the steam escape. Cook them in a microwave-safe dish on high for 10 minutes or so, until the potatoes are soft and fluffy. Look for microwave-ready potatoes in the produce section of your local food market. Pre-washed and individually wrapped, they're done just eight minutes after you pop them into the microwave on high.
The Best Baked Potato
The Russet potato variety is known as the king of baked potatoes. A Russet's mealy texture and high starch content give it that dry, fluffy quality. Yellow Finn potatoes, with a medium starch content, also turn out well when roasted. Potatoes that don't have much starch, such as fingerling potatoes and Yukon golds, don't hold up well in dry heat. Low-starch varieties are ideal sliced thin and cooked in gratins or boiled and diced for potato salads.