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Do you need to poke a potato with a fork before baking?

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December 27, 2007

You have to spend only one afternoon cleaning bits of potato from your oven to know that exploding tubers aren't an old wives' tale. Because of their tough skin and moisture content, these root vegetables build pressure inside as they're baked. Small holes in the skin are necessary to release that steam - just a few on both sides of the potato will do the trick.

For best results, place potatoes directly on an oven rack so that air can circulate around them. Wrapping spuds in aluminum foil traps the steam, resulting in less-crisp skins. When baking sweet potatoes, put a cookie sheet on the rack below them to catch their juices - it's no fun cleaning up that, either.

What causes sweaters to pill?

The unsightly, fuzzy balls that form on sweaters and other clothing occur when fibers come loose and rub together or against another material. Certain high-friction areas are especially prone to pilling: under the arms, or on the shoulder that holds up a purse.

Buying well-made sweaters makes a big difference. Lower-quality products contain a high percentage of short fibers, which are quick to loosen. While wool is susceptible to pilling, other natural fibers, such as cotton and silk, are not. Synthetic fibers, such as nylon and polyester, conduct static electricity, which attracts lint and thus accelerates pilling. Pills produced by these kinds of fibers are also particularly tough to remove.

To determine if a sweater will pill excessively, rub the fabric gently between two fingers. If pills start to form on contact, keep shopping. Also, examine the sweater closely to make sure its knit is tightly woven, and check the ply of the yarn; many sweaters come with a packet of spare yarn for repairs, which allows you to inspect a strand to ensure that it's at least double-ply. Be wary of sweaters that are covered in a layer of fuzz: This is a trick that manufacturers use to make lower-quality fabric feel softer. It may seem luxurious at first but will almost certainly lead to pilling.

Once you buy a sweater, proper care will minimize pilling. Hand-wash garments, and lay them flat to dry. If any pills do form, remove them at the first sign.

I would like to force some bulbs this winter. What's the easiest way?

Forcing bulbs is a great way to have fresh flower displays inside your home throughout the winter. But many bulbs - including tulips, hyacinths, crocus, and narcissus - require a cold treatment in order to flower. This involves keeping the bulbs at a temperature of 35 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit for 10 to 17 weeks. Expect flowering to occur two to six weeks after that.

Certain bulbs do not require this treatment. Paperwhites are one of the easiest to work with. These bulbs will still need to be kept in a dim, cool location (55 F to 60 F); a basement might approximate these conditions.

Fill a shallow, nondraining pot about two-thirds full with a substrate, such as marbles, pebbles, or gravel. Place the bulbs on the surface of the substrate, tips up and shoulder to shoulder. Add a bit more substrate to stabilize them, and then pour in tepid water until it just reaches the base of the bulbs. Store for at least two weeks or until the green shoots that appear at the tips of the bulbs reach 3 inches to 4 inches. The bulbs can then be moved to a brighter spot.

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