Just in Time for Israel's Bonfire Holiday: How to Make the Perfect Hot Potato

Beware of incinerating those spuds baking in the Lag Ba’omer bonfire.

Dan Peretz

As a child in a moshav we didn’t need an excuse like Lag Ba’omer to make a bonfire and it didn’t matter what time of year it was. No child was immune to the charms of the magical whispering of the fire. We did “field cooking” – that’s what our youth group counsellor called it – and swallowed the culinary outcome with blind delight. It didn’t matter whether the fire was big or small, whether we cooked on a field-made stove out of a piece of found iron, or whether it was right on the fire, whether we used tools or just our own 10 fingers. We collected just about everything we saw around us that had potential to turn into a field-cooked meal.

The stars of the show were pita with chocolate spread (yes, that was a favorite in our time as well, and we’re not that old), patties made out of mallows – a wild-growing green called hubeiza in Arabic, and shakshuka, the old egg-and-tomato standby, which we made using our own spur-of-the-moment recipe that included greens from the field.

But we always left room for the queen of the bonfire – the potato. We cooked our spuds in every variation that only kids without adult supervision can think of. Usually it took the form of a long potato snake, as we strung the spuds on a metal wire and set it into the fire and the start of the evening. We knew that we would only get to taste them deep into the middle of the night, after the fire had already died down. We would always wonder – did we burn them on the inside? Who might be the lucky one to get a potato where the skin looked burned to a crisp but the inside was soft, smoked and wonderful? We hardly needed anything to improve the taste; maybe at most a little salt. As for butter – who even thought about it?

Times may have changed, but the magic of the bonfire, of our friends all around us and of smoked potatoes has not changed a bit. Our tastes may have improved (not necessarily), and so has our ability to cook, but “bonfire potatoes” still have no rival. Here are a few tips to upgrade your hot potato.

Soft inside, crispy outside

This is an upgrade that never fails. Before we say what you need to do, here’s what you don’t need to do: Do not put the potato directly into the fire – certainly not without aluminum foil. That seems to go against what we think we know as tried and true, but in fact, we really don’t want to cook when the fire is at its hottest. The fire doesn’t burn at a constant temperature, and there’s a good chance that when you take your potato out of the heart of the flame you’ll find it burned on the outside before it’s cooked on the inside. While the fire is heating up, slice your potato lengthwise and spread a little butter or margarine on it. This will prevent it from drying when it’s cooked on an open fire and the result is soft and heavenly. Another tip if you like your potatoes soft on the inside and crispy on the outside is to rub some butter on the skin.

Next, prick the potato a few times in different places and after that, another important rule is always to wrap the potato in aluminum foil, tightly, with the shiny side facing inward. Now, instead of throwing it into the heart of the fire, do the opposite: Pull a few hot coals out and set the potatoes above and below them so they’ll be covered on all sides. We’ll treat the coals just like a barbecue and make sure they stay hot.

Another possibility is to put all the potatoes on the edge of the fire, close to it, but far from the center of the flame. The cooking will take longer, but you’ll end up with a well-cooked, delicious potato.

How do you know the potato is cooked?

Turn the potatoes over every few minutes and move them around on the coals. But don’t roll the silver foil because you’ll probably get ashes from the fire on the potato and that we definitely don’t want. Of course, cooking time depends on the size of the potato, but usually 45 minutes will do. When it’s time to test if they’re done, make sure you have a good fireproof glove, or long tongs, and try not to press the potato too hard. If it feels soft and the tongs leave a mark in the foil, you’ve probably got a cooked one. Stick a knife in – if you meet opposition, keep cooking.

Another method that we used in summer camp and youth movement campfires: Did you bring a tin can with pickles and olives? Don’t throw it away, it can be a little one-potato oven. Cover the open part of the can with foil and set it on the edges of the fire.

American Indian hot potato

We don’t know who invented this idea and if the Indians really did eat a potato stuffed with egg, but at summer camp this seemed tastier than desert. What do you need? Not much. Foil, egg and any seasonings you like. What do you do? Slice off the top of the potato and set the top aside. Using a spoon, dig out a hole in the rest of the potato. It’s very important to keep the potato whole during this process. Break an egg into the potato and add salt and pepper to taste. Now put the top back on, wrap well with foil and throw it on the fire. Forty minutes later (more if you like it well done) take it out of the fire and carefully unwrap the foil. Open it, season again and eat. Added butter is an option.