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Will a Baked Potato Really Explode If You Don't Prick It?

Food52 logo Food52 9/27/2018 Ella Quittner

a table topped with lots of fruit: Explosions just waiting to happen? © Provided by Food52 Explosions just waiting to happen?

A few weeks back, we came across a hotline question that rocked our worlds:

“I am wondering: Is it really necessary to prick potatoes and sweet potatoes before baking them? In what context? Or is this just a cooking myth from days of yore?”

Our team Slack channel lit up like a Christmas tree. Between two recipe developers and three food editors with more than 100 years of collective cooking experience/obsession, we had zero hard answers—and zero incidents of potato explosion among us. So we turned to science.

A Half-Baked Experiment

a close up of food: Finding potatoes of roughly equal sizes was more than half the battle. © Provided by Food52 Finding potatoes of roughly equal sizes was more than half the battle.

Initially, we thought that an experiment could provide the answer. We scoured the produce bins for two white potatoes and two sweet potatoes of equal sizes. Into the oven they went, at 425° F, one of each variety pricked all around with the tines of a fork about an inch and a half deep. The sweet potatoes took about 45 minutes to fully cook through, while the Russets (aka Idaho potatoes) took a little over an hour.

a close up of food © Provided by Food52

The results of this "experiment" were largely underwhelming—no explosions occurred, and all four potatoes had a very similar internal texture. (The only real difference was the darkening of the flesh of the Russet I'd pricked, due to an oxidizing reaction that occurred when I let it sit out for a half hour before baking.) If anything, the pricked Russet potato had a slightly less soft center, which I think would've been mitigated by another five minutes in the oven.

With a sample size of four, we're not surprised that we didn't get conclusive information. But greater experiments, like the one Cook's Illustrated ran in its journey to the perfect baked potato, have yielded equally blurry answers:

Everyone knows that you have to prick potatoes before baking them so steam doesn’t build up inside and cause them to explode. Well, we baked 40 potatoes without doing this, and not one exploded. But since it takes so little effort, here’s one time we’ll err on the side of caution. It could be the 41st one that explodes.—Cook's Illustrated

Unsatisfied with the results of our great potato bake-off, we called in the big guns, straight from potato country.

a group of various colors: Italian Flatware, Linea (5-Piece Flatware Place Setting) © Provided by Food52 Italian Flatware, Linea (5-Piece Flatware Place Setting) Italian Flatware, Linea (5-Piece Flatware Place Setting) a close up of a knife: Opinel Essential Kitchen Knives Set © Provided by Food52 Opinel Essential Kitchen Knives Set Opinel Essential Kitchen Knives Set

Expert Advice

"Yes, it’s good to prick them," says Brennan Smith, a faculty member of the School of Food Science at University of Idaho. "It pokes holes in the skin, which allows steam to escape. Otherwise, they could explode—it doesn’t happen all the time, but it happens every once in a while. The potato is full of water it’s trying to turn to steam, or water vapor. The skin acts like a pressure vessel. If you don’t let the steam escape, it builds up pressure—if it gets to a certain point of pressure from the water trying to become water vapor, it can pop the skin."

a black bowl full of fruit: The Best Pan-Roasted Potatoes © Provided by Food52 The Best Pan-Roasted Potatoes The Best Pan-Roasted Potatoes by Gretchen @ Backyardnotes a variety of fruit on a table: 7 Potato Recipes You Need in Your Repertoire © Provided by Food52 7 Potato Recipes You Need in Your Repertoire 7 Potato Recipes You Need in Your Repertoire by Food52

According to Smith, this is more likely to happen in a microwave than in an oven, because the rate of heating is faster, and there's less time for the pressure to escape naturally.

There's no material difference, he says, when it comes to the type of potato—sweet, or one of the white- or yellow-fleshed varieties. Both should get pricked.

And the tiny ones, like fingerlings or new potatoes?

"They have more surface area—more than likely, they’ll be less prone to explode," Smith tells me.

So, will a baked potato explode if you don't prick it? The answer's a firm "maybe." Or more accurately, "sometimes." If you don't want to risk it, just prick it.

Got potatoes on the brain?

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