From Scratch: Build-Your-Own Baked Potatoes

December 27, 2012

Stuffed Baked Potato
Photo by Joseph De Leo; styled by Mariya Yufest

Meatless Mondays and Taco Tuesdays are our kinds of rituals. It’s comforting to know what’s going to be set down on the table (or at least that dinner's going to be contained in a taco shell), and dinner regularity makes weekly meal planning that much easier. But designating a single type of meal for one day of the week doesn't have to be boring or repetitive. For example, have you ever considered how versatile baked potatoes can be? 

The starchy spuds are the perfect vehicle for all sorts of creative concoctions, especially leftovers (taco fillings, anyone?). Last night’s chicken curry or the bean chili you made for Meatless Monday make the perfect potato toppers, transforming what would have been a repeat meal into a completely new dinner. If you've never contemplated adding a build-your-own baked potato night to the dinner rotation, now's the time. Just make sure it's plugged in towards the end of each week, so you have plenty of leftovers on hand. We've compiled a few tips for success as well as creative topping ideas to get what's sure to be your new favorite dinner ritual off the ground.

Selecting & Prepping the Potatoes 

  • Look for baking potatoes, like Russets and Idahos, at the market. These varieties have more starch and thicker skins than boiling potatoes, so they'll stand up well to hearty toppings.
  • For a change of pace and a greater concentration of nutrients, search out sweet potatoes. Their slightly sweet flavor complements both sweet and spicy toppings. 
  • If you’re making more than one baked potato, look for spuds of similar size to ensure baking times are consistent.
  • Make sure you scrub potatoes under cold water and dry thoroughly, and then pierce the skin with a fork several times before baking. Puncturing the skin helps steam escape, preventing you from cleaning up an exploded potato.

In the Oven

  • Before your potatoes head into the oven, coat them lightly in olive oil and add a sprinkle of salt to season the skin.
  • To create tender skin, wrap your potatoes in foil (shiny side facing the potato) before baking. For a crispier skin, leave the foil off.
  • Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and toss in the potatoes on a baking sheet for one hour. If you're baking more than four potatoes, tack on an extra 15 minutes.
  • Potatoes are done when they pierce easily with a fork.

Simple Baked PotatoPhoto by Joseph De Leo; styled by Mariya Yufest

Toppings Galore

Basic Toppings

  • Cheese: Depending on your preferences, you can try cheddar, crumbled goat cheese, feta cheese, shredded American, or whatever appeals to you. Just make sure to shred or crumble the cheese so it will melt evenly. You can also sprinkle cheese over split-open potatoes and bake for another five minutes to melt it into the potato.
  • Fresh Vegetables: Practically any fresh vegetable will work on a baked potato, as long as it's diced small. Use raw red onion and carrots to add crunch, or roast peppers and mushrooms alongside the potatoes to add flavor without taking on extra cooking time.
  • Fish & Meats: Crumbled bacon is a classic potato toppings, but you can also shred roasted chicken crumble seasoned ground beef to turn the potato into a full meal. Try mixing canned tuna with a little mayo and chopped celery, or draping smoked salmon over the spud and topping with capers and a dollop of crème fraîche.

Mexican Flavors

  • Tortillas are standard fare, along with rice, to accompany most Mexican meals. Instead of wrapping your favorite topping up, try taking your favorite filling and using it as a potato topper instead.
  • Black beans, taco-seasoned ground beef, chicken in enchilada sauce, and Chili al Pastor, all make delicious potato toppers.
  • If you’re feeling up for a little spice, mark off some time to make a double batch of Mole Grilled Steak and save half the steak and sauce for the next night’s baked potatoes.
  • Breakfast for dinner is always a treat, so why not try topping your tater with a generous portion of crumbled chorizo, a few slices of avocado, pico de gallo, and an over-easy egg?

Asian Applications

  • Plenty of Asian cooking relies on rice or noodles to fill you up, but swap these starches for your baked potato and you've got yourself a meal made in heaven.
  • Stir-fries make quick, simple weeknight meals, so whether it's beef based or veggie laden, try stuffing it into tonight's baked potato.
  • Instead of rubbing your potatoes with salt before sticking them in the oven, try brushing them with soy sauce for an extra dose of Asian flavor.
  • Leftover Thai coconut curry makes an excellent potato topper. Serve the potato in a shallow bowl instead of a plate to allow for the extra liquid, and then let the potato soak up the goodness.

Indian Inspired

  • If you scan Indian menus, you'll notice many dishes with the word aaloo, the Hindu word for potato. Indian dishes make the perfect accompaniment to baked potatoes because much of their cooking revolves around potatoes in the first place! Spicy Vegetable and Potato Curry gives us the Indian spice we crave combined with the simple starchiness of potato that helps fill you up.
  • Now that you know how to create your own curry powder, whip up a lentil curry, chicken curry, or maybe a hearty eggplant curry to spice and smother a baked spud.

European Stylings

  • Cheese and fruit are a timeless French combination. For a simple take on baked Brie, slice some Brie over the top or your potato, broil until bubbly, and then sprinkle with sweetened dried cranberries.
  • For something more savory, grate Gouda cheese and mix with sauteed mushrooms, thyme, salt, and pepper, and then sprinkle over baked split-open spuds. Bake for five minutes, or until the cheese is melted.
  • Goulash, a traditional beef stew in Hungary, features both tender meat and savory gravy. Instead of spooning it over egg noodles, lay it over your baked potato and finish with a dollop of sour cream. 
  • Who says meatballs have to buddy up with spaghetti? Serve them with warm tomato sauce over a split baked potato and sprinkle with grated Parmesan.
  • From braised lamb shanks to osso buco, boeuf bourguignon to coq au vin, all manner of tender, slow-cooked mains work well atop a baked potato.

sweet potato
Photo by Jessica O'Toole

Recipes & Topping Ideas

Coffee-Baked Sweet Potatoes with Chili Spice, Creme Fraiche, Lime, and Cilantro (pictured above)
Twice-Baked Tex-Mex Potato
Ginger-Garlic Greens, Bok Choy and Mushroom Stir-fry
Spicy Corn and Chicken Chili
Turkey Picadillo
A Bowl of Green [Food52]
Homemade Celery-Salt Crusted Baked Potato [Food52]

These are just a few of the ways we like to turn a baked potato into a full meal. How do you spruce up the simple spud? Share your cooking ideas and tips in the comments section below. 

Like this post? Check out last week's From Scratch topic: Warm Spices Primer.

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