What's up with this freaky hole inside my baked potato?
What you see: A potato with a hollow, brown-tinged center What it is: Hollow heart, a harmless physical defect caused by field conditions Eat or toss? Eat! As hollow heart can sometimes manifest in surprisingly geometric ways, you might pretend you’re a spy who just received a secret, potato-based message! Or, maybe not.
I find much intrigue in this potato. First, there’s the sense that a message is being conveyed—is that a letter “I” or an arrow, perhaps? Then, there’s the real, soul-stirring name for this tuber’s condition: hollow heart.
While the name “hollow heart” makes me want to give the potato a big, mashy hug, there’s nothing that us potato lovers need to worry about here. This is a purely physical disorder, brought on by rapid growth after cold temperatures, moisture stress and possibly potassium deficiency. The potato just grew faster than its interior cells could keep up with, and so the cells pulled apart. They stuck to impressively straight lines likely because that was the path of least resistance, says Nora Olsen, Potato Specialist for the University of Idaho.
The brown color is the result of oxidation, just as you’d find on any potatoes left exposed to air; it does not indicate that the potato is rotting. As long as you don’t see any point of entry on the outside, you can be sure that there are no creatures inhabiting this little cavern in your tater.
It turns out that the gap the middle of the potato does carry a message after all. Olsen says its proximity to either the stem or the bud end of the potato signals when in the growing season the hollow heart appeared.
Having researched the issue, I’m now happy to give a loving home to any hollow-hearted potato, but it’s understandable that most consumers don’t like encountering surprise air pockets. Weeding them out, however, is frustrating for the potato industry since there’s no way to tell if the issue is present by simply looking at a potato. Some packing houses will even X-ray their harvests to cull the hollow hearted. But, fortunately, those packing houses still don’t let these very edible potatoes go to waste. They’re typically sent to be dehydrated into mashed potato flakes, or other products where their discoloration won’t be a problem.
But maybe one day, hollow heart potatoes will catch on? Olsen notes a potential upside:
“Some people say, ‘Hey, it’s a good place to put your butter.’”
Love that potato, even with its hollow heart!