The Great Potato Contest

A bag of potatoes and a quest for the cheapest dinner possible

8th Feb 2006

With minds planted firmly in the dirt, we probed the...

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With minds planted firmly in the dirt, we probed the starchy tuber for secrets buried within, all in search of the perfect cooked potato.   Armed with a bag of $2.99 Idahos, we set aflame preconcieved notions, sexed things up, and tried to find the courage (and stomachs) to eat nothing but potatoes like our poor brethren of the 19th century tenement living.

Generally, we don't use them in our cooking--perhaps the occasional roasted red potatoes, or breakfast potatoes with eggs.  But our inspired plan was to acquaint ourselves with this friend-of-the-pauper staple, and to make the cheapest, most lazy meal possible.  These goals resulted in the following stipulations:

  1. We would buy the most inexpensive bag of potatoes at the store, Idaho Gold, our American standard.
  2. We would do zero prep work with the actual spud: no dicing or peeling
    or anything of that sort.  Complete whole and healthy potoatoes.

First, a little history: potatoes originated in the Andean mountains of South America, and though they are associated with Europe and especially Ireland, they did not catch on there immediately.  Since the potato plant is a member of the poisonous nightshade family, many were suspicious of black magic and other spells involved with its use.  It wasn't until the Prussian ruler Frederick the Great ordered any peasant who did not plant potato crops to have his nose and ears cut off, that the potato finally became widespread.  A safeguard against famine, the potato combined with milk and a source of protein is a fairly complete diet, as long as you eat the vitamin-rich skin.

With a New York rent to worry about, that started to sound rather practical.  We decided to focus on the lowly baked potato, if only because there were lots of conflicting information about it.  And we planned to sort it out.

For example, the Food Network's Alton Brown, cheeky food geek and culinary guru, champions the oil method , saying that the oil enriches the skin, adding another layer of scrumpciousness.  Madeleine Kamman, author of the wonderful Making of a Cook , writes on the other hand that while the oiled skin might make for a more aesthetically pleasing look, "an oiled potato skin does not taste half as good as one that has been allowed to dry slowly, and wrinkle a bit."  A kitchen clash was ready to happen.

But we didn't stop there.  Another common practice is to encase the potato in aluminum.  In London, the cutely-named "Jacket Potatoes" are wrapped up and tossed in a hot oven.  And they are good.  But we couldn't really find any cooks that recommend it.  In fact, we heard the words of Madeleine Kamman scolding us: "And of course, an emphatic no to an aluminum jacket around any baking potato for several reasons, the most important being taste."  Sorry, Miss.

And we'd both never seen anyone toss a whole unpeeled potato into boiling water, so we decided to get on with it.  As a joke, we suggested grilling one as well.  Then we actually went through with it.

The Prep Step

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We washed and scrubbed each potato.  You can use a proper brush, but not having one handy, we used an empty-of-soap Oxo Palm Brush .  It worked wonderfully well.  And, on another topic, it is a wonderful invention that makes dishwashing much less of a time-consuming, hateful tragedy.

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Next, we punctured each with a fork 8-10 times.  This prevents moisture from building up during the cooking process, leading to steam building up under the skin, i.e. an exploding spud.  While this would be entertaining on a certain junior-high mindset level (we know you blew up a hotdog in the microwave once, and we feel sorry for your mother), the prospect of cleaning up the mess along with the fact that our oven has no working light in the first place, we decided against this indulgence.  Make sure you dry the potato thoroughly at this point.

Lastly, we cranked the oven up to 400 degrees, and prepared ourselves for the competition to begin.

The Line Up

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1.  The Classic. The straight-up baked potato, that Madeleine Kamman so loved, was the placed straight into the oven with nothing added to it.

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2.  Oiled. For Alton Brown approved spud, we filled a small bowl with oil and salt and lightly covered it.  Then we placed it in the oven.  It's important to note that this method will have some drippings.  We placed a sheet of aluminum foil at the bottom and it worked fine.

3.  Foiled . We simply wrapped the potato completely with aluminum foil and placed in the oven.

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4.  Boiled. For the boiled potato, we salted an unnecessarily large pot of water (we can't remember why, now) and in the little bugger went.  Certainly does look lonely.

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5.  Grilled. We actually did find a recipe for grilling, but it suggested using small red potatoes and an open flame.  For our version, we brushed it with some oil, and plopped it on the grill pan over medium heat.

6.  Open Flame. At the last minute, we cranked up a burner and set about charring a potato.  At first, nothing happened, and, with a tired arm from holding it over the flame, we set it down on the burner to go chop some parsely.  Promptly, we set off the smoke detectors and the skin started popping and turning black.  After opening a window and waving a t-shirt at the smoke detector until it quit screeching, we decided that puting a potato over an open flame was silly.  And we moved on.

The Toppings

To help bide the time, and to help with the ingestion of so, so much starch, we made a few toppings.  Consulting various cookbooks, we decided on three for our flavor testing: a parsely/butter/garlic mixture, the traditional sour cream with green onion, and a fancy caramelized garlic recipe that called for, well, thirty cloves of the stuff.

Sour Cream and Green Onion

The first topping was the all-American topping of sour cream with chopped green onion (scallions) stirred in.  It's real easy.

Garlic Dressing

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Thankfully garlic costs next to nothing, so I bought four heads just to be safe.  Quick note.  A clove of garlic looks like the little cresent moons in the picture.  A head of garlic is the fully clothed large bulbs in the background.  Sounds basic, but that hasn't stopped one of us (Blake) from once puting three heads of garlic into a salad dressing for a dinner party of 13, all because he thought the large heads were the cloves.  It wasn't pretty.

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Interestingly, this is what a head of garlic looks like with all the cloves removed.  Sort of amazing.  I don’t think people usually get to the end of these things, since they’re pretty expendable.  Anyway, we smash the cloves one at a time with the flat of a knife and then the skin comes off easily (no need to dice or anything). Put them into a pan with a tablespoon of oil (or so).  Make sure not to use too much, since you’re not looking to sauté them in the traditional sense—you’re doing something closer to toasting them.

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Place them in the pan and toss it around until they get somewhat browned.  Medium-high heat or it will take forever.

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When they’re browned add ¾ cup beef stock or broth .  Actually, vegetable is better, but we didn't have any.  Bring to a boil and then turn down the heat to medium-low and put a lid on it.  It will simmer for a long time as the garlic breaks down and eventually becomes mushy.  If it gets too dry, add water.

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Around 20 minutes later, take a soft spoon and press down on the garlic with the back of it.  The garlic should break up easily, forming a kind of paste.  Keep over low heat until the potatoes are ready to go.

Parsely and Butter

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The next topping was quite simple--melt a knob or two of butter over medium heat and saute some garlic for a couple minutes, then add chopped parsley and mix.  You can also add other fresh herbs--thyme would work well.

The Lineup after Examination

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The Classic looked like, well, a baked potato.  It had a slightly crispy crust, but looked rather puny and unhealthy.

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The Oiled looked mean and delicious.  The oil gave the skin a colorful hue, and it smelled quite nice, too.

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The Foiled had almost no coloration, and the skin was not hard at all.

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The Boiled had slightly more color than the Foiled, but it's skin was already flaking off.

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The grilled?  Yeah.  Well, it wasn't ready yet.

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Here they are lined up, Foiled/Classic/Oiled/Boiled.

The Tasting Verdict

Round 1:  Straight Up, No Chaser

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Cutting an end off each potato, we tasted with no additives to get a real sense of the spud.

Foiled: Not offensive, but uninspiring.
Classic: It had the best inside "potato" flavor.  The skin was just decent, but balanced.
Oiled: It was very flavorful, with skin giving it a wonderful complexity.  The inside was creamy, though almost to the point of mealy.
Boiled: Way better than we expected.  The skin wasn't interesting, but the inside was creamy.

Round 2:  All American Spuds

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This mainstay topping, while it may seem boring, is actually a great contrast to the hot potato.

Foiled: Disappointing.  It tastes like sour cream with nothing to stand up to it.
Classic: It had a nice flavor contrast and had a more consistent taste.
Oiled: Yow! The chewy, hefty skin was an excellent compliment to the cool sour cream.
Boiled: The texture doesn't seem right with the cool cripness of the topping.  In fact, the topping seemed to override what little flavor was left.


Round 3: No Kissing Tonight Extragance

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It smelled terrific, and looked horrific.

Foiled: Surprisingly, the creamy inside blended well with the garlic.
Classic: The somewhat crispy skin worked excellently with the garlic texture.  Pretty good.
Oiled: Wow. The husky garlic and full-bodied flavor profile is powerful and robust.  It was great in small doses, but soon became a little too much to handle.
Boiled: Eh.  The garlic completely overpowered the potato, so it felt like chewing on strips of garlic. (apparently that's a bad thing).

Round 4:  Parsley Ala Mode

Lastly, to properly coat the pieces of potato, we spooned them into the concoction.

Foiled: It was unoffensive, but characterless.  Better than the boiled, but only slightly.
Classic: Itll lacked much character.  The skin was also strangely annoying.
Oiled: The clear winner.  Fresh, light herbs lifted the heavier, brawny taste to new heights.
Boiled: It was pretty boring.  The topping didn't bring any new textures.


Conclusions

By the time we were through, "I feel sick" was the clear majority.  After endless potatoes, and heavy, oil rich toppings, both of us felt like lying down for a few days.  Nevertheless, we set about offering concluding thoughts on the experience.

The emerging winners were our Classic and Oiled potatoes, which both were consistently tasty.  Clearly, the oiled one had deeper, stronger flavor--but that also meant that it was a little too dominant with some of the toppings.   However, if you're looking for a crispy skin, the conventional bake and the boiled were also good. The aluminum-wrapped potato was a bust, and really had none of the admirable traits of either the oiled or classic.

And no, we didn't forget about the grilling potato, but the experiment did fail terribly.  After 75 minutes of cooking and two more smoke detector instances, we removed it and cut it in half.  As expected, the inside was uncooked while the meat neat the skin was a kind of mush.  For the record Nick actually tasted it.  Blake, however, did not.

Final Word

"I feel really sick.  You know those assesments of taste and creaminess and such?  Now it all tastes the same to me." -Nick

"I've never felt so completely full and hungry at the same time.  Basically the feeling of having eaten a loaf of bread for dinner" -Blake

The final word is simple: never try to eat only potatoes for dinner.  While you can feel full for around 75 cents, you will never be able to do it again.  Neither of us
have been near a potato since this happened.  Later in the evening we found ourselves eating carrots because it was the only snack in the refrigerater that had nothing to do with carbohydrates.  I thought about microwaving some chicken breasts.  We were about to start munching on leftover parsely.  Happy baking.

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