The Food Lab: Homemade Tater Tots, Sweet Potater Tots, Twice Baked Potater Tots, And More!
Raise your hand if you like Tater Tots? (And remember, it's the Internet, so no one can see you)!
Everyone, right? I thought so. They get a bum rap in public, and it's a travesty, because they are perhaps the second-most-awesomest crisp-on-the-outside tender-in-the-center fried potato-based snack ever conceived, giving French fries a run for their money. In fact, I'd even go so far as to say that Tater Tots are better than all but the very best French fries, and how often do you get the very best fries?
Tater-Tots themselves are a registered trademark of frozen hash browns made by the Ore-Ida company, and I credit them with the incredible feat of both popularizing them and giving them their negative reputation. It's all because of the silly name. What self-respecting adult can come right out and say that they like a food that's so clearly marketed towards kids? The alternative brand names—including but not limited to Tater Treats, Mexi-Nuggets, Potato Locos, Potato Pom-Poms, Oven Crunchies, and Tasti Taters—are no better.
Yet why is it that in every Spanish or Portuguese-speaking country in the world, potato croquetas are considered a perfectly reasonable—even desirable—dish for a fully grown man to consume. You can even eat them while drinking beer! I'd argue that Tater Tots easily trounce croquetas in every good measure of gastronomic superiority. Let me explain: With their fluffy, potato-y interior, they are more delicious than their creamy European cousins. They take considerably more skill to make than a croqueta (of the numerous times I've ordered house-made "Tater Tots" at various hipster restaurants, I can count on no hands the number of times they were any good). Thanks to their large surface area and craggy exterior, they are far crisper. It seems like no contest to me, and I'd forthwith like to rescue Tater Tots from the depths of culinary mediocrity their reputation has fallen to.
Of course, that means exploring them from start to finish by making them in my own kitchen.
Hot for TotsFirst off, what exactly is in a Tater Tot? Thanks to the strict protocols put in place by the USDA, that information is quite easy to come by.
In case you didn't know this already, the ingredients on packaged food are always listed in order of mass, which means that Tater Tots, unsurprisingly, are mostly potato, followed by vegetable oil, salt, corn flour (a pure starch), onions (presumably in powdered form), dextrose (a simple sugar also known as glucose), disodium dihydrogen pyrophosphate (an antioxidant that prevents potatoes from turning brown), and natural flavoring.
This is not a particularly surprising list, but there was one point of interest that I figured would be helpful further down the line: there is more added salt in Tater Tots than added starch. Since human taste buds can only tolerate around a 2% salt level before things start tasting really salty, I could assume that the added starch is therefore less than 2% of the overall weight of the finished product. Write that down in your notebooks.
Next phase: deconstruction.
I placed a bunch of frozen Tots inside a fine-mesh strainer under cold running water and proceeded to wash them until all the excess oil and starch fell away from the potato pieces. What I was left with was this:
A whole bunch of pieces of chipped, cooked potato.
No surprise here. What's more interesting is the history of Tater Tots. Tater Tots were invented in 1953 by the Ore-Ida company as a means to use up all the scraps of potato and misshapen fries they had leftover from French Fry production, hence the irregular chipped appearance of their debris. It was a happy side effect that these tiny chipped pieces worked together to increase the surface area of the Tots and maximize crispness. If only all side effects were so happy!
That I was able to collect these chipped potatoes was good news: since I was starting with the exact same potato pieces as a real Tater Tot, it meant I could isolate the second phase of the recipe in order to figure out what was being used to bind them.
I started by adding 2% salt, 1.5% corn starch, a pinch of sugar (I just used table sugar instead of glucose), and a dash of onion powder (no preservatives or "natural flavorings" were on hand, unfortunately). I compressed the mixture into tot-shaped pieces, and fried them off.
No good. The Tots came out totally mushy, almost gummy. Thinking I added too much starch, I tried reducing the amount until I was at a point where the Tots just fell apart in the oil. Even with the bare minimum of starch, they were still coming out too gummy.
I switched tracks, this time thinking to myself, if Ore-Ida uses French fry scraps, perhaps I should too?
I reached for a bag of frozen Perfect Thin & Crisp French Fries that I always have sitting in my freezer and tossed them in the food processor to go for a spin. To the crunched up fries, I added my starch and other seasoning.
The results were spot-on: crisp, moist, and fluffy.
Why is it that the frozen fries worked perfectly, but the bits of Ore-Ida potatoes turned to mush?
Then it hit me: when I was rinsing off those potatoes, I wasn't just rinsing away starch and flavorings. I was also rinsing away oil—a whole lot of it. I'd assumed that the oil content of the Tater Tots came 100% from the deep-frying process (they are par-fried before being frozen and bagged), but the fact that my oil-coated French fries worked out so well indicated that there was most likely oil inside the Tots as well.
Anyone who's tried my French fry recipe, knows that it's long-winded and finicky, to say the least (much like my articles). Was there really no way to make great Tater Tots without first having to make great fries? What role was the oil playing anyway?
Well, here's the thing. We know that what keeps the Tater Tots stuck together is a combination of two pretty sticky things: moist starches and proteins. The more they come in contact with each other, the stickier they become, and the tighter/gummier the Tater Tots will be. Oil can lubricate individual pieces of potato and starch, preventing them from rubbing up against each other too hard. Oil is like a chastity belt for starches that just really wanna get it on.
In this respect, Tater Tots in many ways are like a pie crust. In order to get a pie crust that's both flaky and tender, you need to get the right balance of moistened flour proteins to give it structure, while at the same time adding enough fat (in the form of butter, lard, or shortening) to prevent the flour proteins from turning into one giant, stiff, leathery sheet.
Knowing this, I tried another simple test: I cut a couple potatoes into rough chunks and lowered them into a wokful of hot oil, cooking them just until they were softened through and a very pale golden brown. I let these potatoes cool, then pulsed them a few times in the food processor to get the slivers I needed. After adding in my starch, salt, and sugar, I re-fried them.
Total success! In your face, Ore-Ida!
Thus far, I'd managed to pull together a near-identical home-made version of a packaged Tater Tot. What's the problem with that? Well why on earth would anybody bother peeling, frying, chopping, shaping and re-frying their own Tots when you can easily buy a package of frozen ones that are just as good?
One word: Bacon. Bacon and cheddar. Two words: Bacon and cheddar. And chives. Three words. Bacon, cheddar, and chives. And pepperoni. Amongst the ingredients that can be added to home-made Tater Tots are such diverse elements as... ah, forget it.
One different word: Customization.
As soon as we saw SE member Cassaendra's photo of the Sweet Potato Tots from Original Steak & Hoagies on her Flickr account, we got the flavor wheels turning here at the office, coming up with Pepperoni Pizza Tots (pictured at the very top), Twice Baked Potater-Tots (with sour cream for dipping!), Spanish Chorizo Tater-Tots (nobody expects the Spanish Tater Tots!), Sweet PoTater Tots (with a touch of honey!, and Buffalo Tater Tots, amongst others. Once the basic technique is down, it's really easy to add in whatever flavorings you'd like (and of course, we'd love to hear your best ideas)
The only thing you have to be careful of is this:
Add too many flavorings, and your Tots won't hold together when you fry them, which'll not only mess up your snack, it'll also send annoying bits of potato swimming around the oil, which'll then have to be filtered before you can start over.
And don't overprocess. Two things you have to be careful about. When processing the the potatoes, do not overprocess them, or they will turn to glue, quite literally. Pulse them just enough to break them down. If a few large pieces of potatoes remain, no problem—break them up with your fingers in the bowl. Overprocessing will release a ton of starch, and all the oil in the world ain't going to help.
I did find that if you accidentally overprocess, you can actually add a 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon or so of baking powder to the mix and it'll help keep things a little lighter. That's last ditch effort problem-solving though. Better not to get yourself into that mess in the first place.
As far as shaping the Tots goes, you can go free-form or ball-shaped if you'd like, but for the traditional cylindrical version, I found the best way was to employ the nigirizushi method, using one hand to form the round sides of the cylinder while using the finger and thumb of your other hand to flatten the top and bottom. It's really quite easy once you get the hang of it. Check out this slideshow for a step-by-step guide to shaping.
I found that the best way to freeze the Tots is to do it the Ore-Ida way: par-fry them for half the time, then spread them on a sheet tray and place it in the freezer. Once the Tots are completely frozen, you can transfer them to a freezer bag for long-term storage. You can fry them straight from frozen. Just like with fries, freezing actually improves their texture!
Perhaps with these upgraded Tots, we'll finally be able to elevate their status to the lofty heights it deserves!