The Origins Of The Loaded Baked Potato Have Ties To A Famous Railway

Baked potatoes have been a staple of American dining for ages — seemingly since always. But that's not the case. Colonizers actually brought potatoes from South America to Europe, and eventually to America in the 1600s. Idaho, the U.S. state most famous for its potatoes, wouldn't have this root vegetable introduced to the land for another two centuries, and even then, Idaho potatoes were originally grown to keep the hogs fed. 

It wouldn't be until 1908 that the baked potato, as we know it today, would be discovered. After more than 30 years of construction, the Northern Pacific Railway finally reached Idaho. Railway workers flocked to the state to continue building tracks — and after a day of exhausting physical labor, these workers needed to eat. So enters the humble Idaho baking potato. High in starch, the size of a human fist, and with an exceptionally thick skin, the potato for which the state is now famous became an ideal choice for baking. 

The beauty of a russet potato

Because of their size and thicker-than-average skin, the russet potatoes from Idaho proved difficult to cook properly. But when baked, the center becomes thick and creamy, and the skin crackles and crisps. Still, russet potatoes aren't known for flavor. That's where the beautiful world of toppings comes in. Consider the potato as a plain, calorie-dense canvas that can be dressed up with anything you like. Hungry railroad workers were given an array of topping choices for baked potatoes. This created less work for the cooks and allowed workers to customize the potatoes to their tastes. Plus, the concept of a "loaded" baked potato means you can change up the flavors with ease, so the dish resisted becoming monotonous. 

To this day, budget-conscious college students, exhausted families, and gourmet steakhouses alike enjoy tossing a classic Idaho russet into the oven and topping it with cheddar, sour cream, chives, bacon, chili, and everything but the kitchen sink. Baking turned out to be such a good cooking method for these starchy veggies that we decided to do it twice, giving way to the now-beloved, but equally simple twice-baked potato. Next time you dig into a loaded baked potato, thank the construction of the Northern Pacific Railway for giving us one of the easiest weeknight dinner staples in U.S. history.