On New Years Day, I decided I needed some fried potatoes to go with the homemade ketchup my friend Mark and I had made the previous week. And not just any fried potatoes. No siree. I wanted the king of fried potato junk food goodness: greasy, crispy Tater Tots. But authentic Tater Tots come in a plastic bag, so I’d have to see if I could make them myself. As always, Google was right there with the answer. J. Kenji Lopez-Alt from Serious Eats had reverse engineered the tater tot and provided an easy-to-follow recipe, one that looked like it would win the Napoleon Dynamite stamp of approval.
But making homemade Tater Tots turned out not to be the plastic-free, waste-free process I had hoped for. I’ll explain what I mean further in this post. First, the recipe:
Homemade Tater Tots: Step by Step
- 2 pounds russet potatoes (I actually used 2 large potatoes, about 1-1/2 pounds)
- 2 quarts peanut, vegetable, or canola oil (I actually used a lot less oil, buying a 16-ounce glass bottle of Spectrum organic high temperature sunflower oil because it was the only high temperature oil I could find on New Years Day.)
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt (I cut this amount in half, and it was still too much salt. Be sparing! You can always add salt later.)
- 1 tablesoon cornstarch or potato starch (I used cornstarch, since it was what I already had in the house, and cut the amount in half.)
- 1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar (I used 1/4 tsp.)
- Freshly ground black pepper
1) Peel the potatoes and cut into roughly 1-inch chunks. Soak chunks in a bowl of cold water for a few minutes.
2) Pat potato chunks dry with a clean tea towel. (Why waste paper towels?)
3) Heat oil in saucepan or fryer to 350°F, toss in potato chunks, and cook until golden brown.
4) Turn down the burner to low, remove the fried potatoes, and drain. The instructions say to drain them on paper towels, but we actually don’t buy disposable paper towels. So I just drained them through a wire sieve. After all, that’s what they do at McDonald’s, right? (You should start to worry when your cooking standards start to resemble those of McDonald’s — but I digress.)
5) Place fried potatoes in food processor a little at a time and pulse quickly a few times to break up into smaller pieces. Do not overprocess them into mush.
6) Add cornstarch, sugar, and salt to processed fried potatoes.
7) Form into that familiar tubular Tater Tot shape.
8) Heat oil again to 350°F and toss in the shaped Tater Tots. Fry until golden brown.
9) Turn off heat, remove Tots, and drain.
10) Server with homemade tomato ketchup.
11) Give them to someone you love and see if they smile. If they do, you have succeeded.
So What’s the Problem?
Michael liked my homemade tots. I thought they were too salty, but that’s something that could easily be remedied the next time. Except, there isn’t going to be a next time. Why? Because of the oil.
First of all, while the oil came in a glass bottle, the cap, seal, and neck were made of plastic — all this plastic for only one meal. I mean, I do sometimes buy glass bottles of oil or vinegar or other cooking ingredients with plastic tops, but they last for many weeks or months — not one sitting.
Which brings me to the second issue — all this oil for only one meal! This was the first time I ever deep fried anything, and I’m troubled looking at the nearly full bottle of dirty cooking oil I’m left with. Think of how many sunflowers it must have taken to make this bottle of oil.
I didn’t want to waste it, so I checked Google once again to find out where to take it to be recycled. There are several locations in the East Bay and San Francisco for residents to drop off used cooking oil to be converted into bio-diesel. The closest to me was at the Oakland Whole Foods Market, so I hopped on my bike and pedaled my dirty oil over to the recycling station.
So, I recycled it. But here’s the thing: there were 3,840 calories in this bottle. But instead of using those calories as food to power myself, I am basically giving them away to be used to power someone else’s car!
Now, after another quick Google search, I see many foodie articles claiming that it’s okay to re-use vegetable oil a few times as long as you strain in and keep it cold, even freeze it. But honestly, I’m suspicious of that. Cooking causes oil to break down, creating carcinogenic free radicals. Dr. Andrew Weil advises against reusing cooking oil because of “a toxin called 4-hydroxy-trans-2-nonenal (HNE) forms when such oils as canola, corn, soybean and sunflower oils are reheated.” Of course, it’s not like Tater Tots are health food in the first place. Still, mitigating the damage is never a bad idea.
I’m thinking that the next time I want fried potatoes, I’ll make potato pancakes in a fry pan with a little oil. Or maybe I could figure out a way to make the actual Tots in a fry pan. What do you think? Ideas? Suggestions? How can I keep all the greasy goodness for myself instead of pouring it away?