So much more delectable than its simple name suggests, the baked potato (jacket potato to the Brits) is comfort food extraordinaire - and cheap and simple to prepare as well! Some might consider it the perfect food.
When choosing a potato for baking, go for a type that is low in moisture and high in starch; the classic baking potato is the russet, also known as the Idaho, though the long white also bakes very well. When baked, these varieties have an almost mealy, dry texture; this makes them good for mashed potatoes, too. (Boiling potatoes like yukon golds will also yield perfectly acceptable baked potatoes, but baking potatoes won't return the favour, crumbling disappointingly when sliced or cubed and then boiled: baking potatoes make bad potato salad.)
If you're baking more than one potato, try to pick tubers all the same size so that they'll all be done at the same time; one 10-12 ounce (300-360 gram) potato per diner should be fine.
To prepare the potatoes, scrub and dry them well. Pierce them once or twice with a fork or a skewer so they won't explode in the oven. The skins will be soft and delicious if you rub them with oil and sprinkle them with salt before baking them (coarse or kosher salt is wonderfully crunchy). Place them on a cookie sheet, stick them in a 400°F/210°C for 45 minutes to an hour, or until they give slightly when squeezed with your hand (please use an oven mitt!). (You can speed the cooking time by driving a thick skewer through the potatoes before putting them in the oven.)
Please don't bake potatoes in a microwave; it makes them gummy. A conventional oven is much better.
At the very least, season your baked potato with lots of salt and freshly ground pepper. The classic steak house baked potato has butter and sour cream spooned over and is then sprinkled with chopped chives and bacon bits; this is delicious. But I've got some other ideas, too.
The easy one is to cut a cross in the top of each baked potato, squeeze gently to open up, and then sprinkle with some of your favourite cheese, grated; for me, that would be extra old cheddar.
The more time-consuming, but also more delicious, method is to make twice-baked potatoes. Cut each baked potato in half and carefully scoop out the hot flesh with a spoon; put the now-empty skins back in the oven while you mash the flesh with flavourings of your choice. I can recommend cheese, buttermilk, chopped green onions, sour cream, yogurt, roasted garlic, chopped cilantro, a smidge of chipotle in adobo sauce... Go to town! Then mound the filling back into the shells, return to the oven for 10 minutes to warm through, and finish off with a minute or so under the broiler to brown the top. Now that's a baked potato!