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Followup report: The space-age baked potato

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Jan. 13th, 2009 | 05:33 pm

update:  the individually-plastic-wrapped, Colorado-created Idaho potatoes (and also sweet potatoes) are priced at $1.50 per potato at a local large-chain grocery store. By contrast, the same store has a 10# bag of Idaho white potatoes for $4.99. Wow. "Eliminating waste" (see below) by buying some things one at a time can get expensive!

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This entry contains the promised report concerning the latest development in food science: individual Idaho potatoes pre-wrapped in plastic by 21st century food scientists based in Colorado.

To review: The magicians behind this new food product promise that their pre-wrapped potatoes not only have the same flavor as those baked in conventional ovens, despite being designed for use in microwave ovens, but also that there is less waste, because as many or few potatoes as desired can be purchased at one time.

Experimental goal: To test the marketer's claims regarding the taste and texture of the cooked potato, or to see a potato explode in a microwave oven, or both. The manufacturer's economic claims are not tested in this experiment.

Experimental setup: A standard rotary-turntable-style microwave oven of questionable origin was wiped slightly clean and prepared for cooking. A tentative subject potato was selected at random from two candidates. The tentative subject potato was examined for anomalous characteristics or asymmetry that could skew the experiment. The tentative subject potato, having been determined to represent a nominally typical example of potatoes in the experimental category, was relabeled "subject potato" and placed as received from the manufacturer, sealed in plastic, on the rotary glass turntable of the microwave.

Experiment: Following the instructions in the mini booklet affixed to the subject potato, the oven was set to "high power" and the subject potato was exposed to non-ionizing microwave-frequency radiation for 7 minutes (00:07:00.00) (Fig.1 ). The cycle was not interrupted at any time nor, despite repeated urges to do so on the part of the experimenter, was the oven door opened.

Following irradiation, the subject potato was allowed to "rest" for approximately 30.7 seconds during which time the oven door remained closed and the potato undisturbed. At the conclusion of the rest period, the oven door was opened and the subject potato was extracted from the microwave oven using two conventional oven mitts, with care taken to avoid compressing or otherwise physically altering the subject potato. When the potato had cooled slightly, the plastic was removed using an Ikea brand steak knife, taking care not to score the potato skin (unsuccessfully). The potato was placed on a standard room temperature ceramic dinner plate to cool and to release additional steam (approx. 60.62 seconds). The potato was briefly examined, then sliced open using the same Ikea dinner knife, and eaten by the experimenter.

Observations: Despite its tough plastic wrapping, the potato released considerable moisture into the air (Fig. 2, 3) which formed a heavy condensate (believed to be H2O) on the oven door upon contact with room air. At the end of irradiation, the potato was bulging against its plastic sheath (Fig. 4). Upon close examination of the basal surface, experimenters observed an unsightly bulge and eruption of the potato through the sheathing (Fig. 5), reminiscent of the so-called "muffin top" or "American tourist at the beach".

Upon removal of the plastic, experimenters noted that the potato's skin was moist, but dried quickly and developed "a hint" of the dry, crispy goodness that would characterize a potato baked by conventional means in an oven or grill. (Fig. 6). Upon bisection of the potato, experimenters observed that the potato was more-or-less evenly cooked, steamy, light, and fluffy, like a good potato should be (Fig. 7).

Conclusions: Not so bad, but I won't be going out of my way to seek these out. As someone already wrote, the potato had less of the mealy texture that can sometimes take the fun out of a microwave-heated potato, but it wasn't so much that I'd give up doing things the old way. I have no idea what these cost new (I bought mine on sale at a closeout). I'd rather have a potato baked on a grill or the old fashioned way, all things considered, but any old potato with a few fork-sticks in the nuker would also keep me happy when I'm in need of a baked potato and haven't the time to let one bake properly. Sixty seconds of additional irradiation may have yielded a more fully cooked, more tasty potato, yet remained within the 7 to 8 minute manufacturer's recommended timings for exposure to non-iodizing microwave radiation, as results may vary with different apparatus.

Future work: A double blind test would be necessary to provide fully defensible results. However, funding and patience for such additional work may be difficult to find. Further, the experimenter stands firm in his belief that he can accurately recall the qualities and taste of a conventionally-baked Idaho potato.

Figures:
Fig. 1: ready to start the experimental irradiation

Fig.2: nearing completion of irradition, note condensate inside viewing portal

Fig. 3: condensate

Fig. 4: bulging against plastic sheathing

Fig. 5: breach of sheathing on basal surface

Fig. 6: skin 'crisping up' slightly after removal of plastic sheathing

Fig. 7: post-bisection, pre-ingestion view


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