The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

January 3, 2012

The Trouble With Homemade Tater Tots

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

homemade tater tots ingredients

1) Peel the potatoes and cut into roughly 1-inch chunks. Soak chunks in a bowl of cold water for a few minutes.

homemade tater tots ingredients

2) Pat potato chunks dry with a clean tea towel. (Why waste paper towels?)

homemade tater tots ingredients

3) Heat oil in saucepan or fryer to 350°F, toss in potato chunks, and cook until golden brown.

homemade tater tots ingredients

homemade tater tots ingredients

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.)

homemade tater tots ingredients

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.

homemade tater tots ingredients

6) Add cornstarch, sugar, and salt to processed fried potatoes.

homemade tater tots ingredients

7) Form into that familiar tubular Tater Tot shape.

homemade tater tots ingredients

homemade tater tots ingredients

8) Heat oil again to 350°F and toss in the shaped Tater Tots. Fry until golden brown.

homemade tater tots ingredients

9) Turn off heat, remove Tots, and drain.

homemade tater tots ingredients

10) Server with homemade tomato ketchup.

homemade tater tots ingredients

11) Give them to someone you love and see if they smile. If they do, you have succeeded.

homemade tater tots ingredients

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.

homemade tater tots ingredients

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.

homemade tater tots ingredients

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.

homemade tater tots ingredients

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.

Oakland Whole Foods grease recycling station

Oakland Whole Foods grease 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?

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Catherine Sultana

If you’re going to revisit this idea, after cutting clean potatoes, soak in ice water is necessary.
Here’s a youtuber to walk you through making crispy baked French fries.


It’s a myth that Extra virgin Olive Oil is not safe for frying, in fact EVOO is one of the safest for frying and cooking. There are several studies about that. One of them: A study reported in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry tested the effects of continuously heating virgin olive oil for 36 hours to measure how the oil degraded. The scientists reported: Two monovarietal extra virgin olive oils from Arbequina and Picual cultivars were subjected to heating at 180 degrees C (356 degrees F) for 36 h. Oxidation progress was monitored by measuring oil quality changes… Read more »


Some things are just worth saying what the heck. Deep fried tater tots belong in that category. With all the different oils, roasting, baking, broiling. Just take the plunge and throw them on some good old fashioned Crisco vegetable oil and deep fry away. You will be glad you did.


As for making soap. It’s been a long time since caustic soda was sold at a chemist in glass here. It’s all plastic tubs now. Being a drain cleaner it cannot be stored in metal. Does anyone get it without plastic these days? As for the fried food (I think Australia calls them potato gems). I felt shocked at the disposal of the oil. It seemed far from damaged and you were having a deep-fried food binge weren’t you? I would have at least kept it as a reminder. So the next time you feel like a binge you could… Read more »


First of all – sunflower oil is not your best choice for frying and I would recommend against frying if you are using any omega 6 rich oil… I only cook with coconut oil, butter or animal fats – all other fats are not healthy when heated. When we deep fry anything we recycle the oil – I don’t mean recycle to “throw away” but simply strain it through a mesh strainer/cheese cloth when cool then save it in the fridge – you can use it several times!!! Olive oil is good for tossing a salad – but not for… Read more »


Wow! You have truly inspired me! One thing I wanted to add to this thread is something I have recently discovered with regard to oils. It’s a documentary titled “The Oiling of America: How the Vegetable Oil Industry Demonized Nutritious Animal Fats and Destroyed the American Food Supply”. The title gives you a good indication of what you will discover by watching. I do believe you can get it from netflix. There are also videos on youtube if you search for it by the v words “oiling of america”. Basically any oil which is not a solid at room temperature… Read more »


My fried potato solution: 1 large potato 2-3T rendered fat I use fat that’s left from sauteing bacon or roasting chicken (one glass bowl each in my fridge), and saute rather than deep fry. I use a cast iron pan, a metal box grater, my wooden cutting board and one large potato for 2 people as a generous side dish. Put 2-3T or so of bacon or chicken fat in the pan on medium heat, let it heat for a couple of minutes until it is good and hot. If your pan tends to stick 3T will be best, if… Read more »


Thanks for breaking out these steps and creating a very interesting discussion. I second baking them – even if you do it twice like you fried them. I love tater tots when I can get them. I have never fried them. I bake them first to cook them. And then the last few minutes, I turn on the broiler to get them crispy. Could you pulse them first or shave them like potato latkes and then bake? then form them and bake again? I think I might have to try this and see if it works. I miss tater tots… Read more »


In my experience: you can re-use oil for cooking up to four times- just remember to filter it through a coffee filter. I do this when I fry turkeys at thanks giving. THen I simply reefer the used oil.


Oh, my liberal San Franciscan babe, don’t worry about the oil. You either must consider it a calculated loss if you’re determined to deep fry, or else filter it save and reuse it several times; that’s what they do at McDonald’s. You can filter it through a paper coffee filter to get the sediment out . No big deal. I really like your website.


I hear you on the oil waste. But, there is another way. We were craving fries recently. And, we do often have roasted poatoes in the oven, which are low in oil, but oh, so not the same, sometimes only fries will do. Anyway, I cut up the potatoes and boiled them to just tender. Then I filled up my smallest cooking pot (about 5 inches diameter) with 1 inch of oil and then fried the potatoes in small batches. Yeap, it took longer than I wanted, but it saves oil. While the potatoes were frying I prepared the rest… Read more »

L. Sergius Catilina
Our Red House

I’ve never heard of tater tots until today and I think I’m glad never to have been forced to eat one!

More seriously, what about using a wok? You would get some depth without using much oil.


Kate (in Australia)


tater tots are so good… and addictive!


to reuse you cooking oil to make soap: you need: coconut oil 750 grams recycled coocking oil 750 g NaOH Water the sap value for coconut oil is 0.19 and for reused cooking oil i use a sap of 0.130 so: Cocount oil 750 x 0.19 Sap= 142.5 This is the amount of NaOH you need for this oil recycled cooking oil 750 x 0.130 sap=97.5 This is the amount of caustic soda you need for this oil. sum up the two amounts of caustic soda= and you will obtail 241g. this is the amount of Naoh you need for… Read more »

Condo Blues

Can you bake them instead of frying them? My husband and I indulge in Scotch Eggs once every few years. Instead of deep frying them, I developed a recipe that calls for baking them.


Tater tots and french fries are tricky…to get that great texture and mouth-feel, you have to fry the potatoes twice. The first fry is usually done at 350 degrees F, to cook the potato through. The second fry is usually done at 375 degrees F to crisp the outside of the fry or tot, so when you bite, your teeth first break through a crisp exterior to reach the soft interior. To get the mouth-feel and texture of a tot, chopping up already fried potatoes and binding them with cornstarch to shape them is the key to that mouth-feel. (The… Read more »


I like to ‘steam fry’ my potatoes using little to no oil. I cook up some sweet onions, garlic and a bit of chopped red bell pepper then potatoes, unskinned. My guys gobble them up and my teenage son smothers them in ketchup.

Be careful using oils like olive oil to cook with as it has a low ‘smoke point’ and is best used cold, not heated.

Can’t wait to try your ketchup recipe when tomato season hits!


May I suggest simply injecting the oil directly into your arteries? Just joking… I loves me some good fried junk food now and then, but I’ve gotta say, this post sort of gave me flashbacks to my high school job at Jack-in-the-Box, which put a definitive end to my fast food cravings – I’ll spare you the story of their tacos… but let’s just say I almost couldn’t bring myself to serve them after seeing how they were prepared. I’ve had bad luck with fried potatoes in general, so I usually just boil them… boring I know, but I’m a… Read more »


Beth, the comments people are making about oven-baked being so much healthier are true. But you knew that going into this experiment (hence the McDonald’s comment!). I enjoyed this post very much, because I got to see a little glimpse of the Beth Terry behind the “life without plastic” goals–a woman who sometimes just wants a homemade tater tot, gosh darn it. So, good for you for trying something new, and evaluating the greater ramifications of the whole process for your readers. : )

Happy New Year!


I roast as well with a drizzle of oil and lots of spices. Or we use coconut oil to make latkes.

Contrary to popular thinking nowadays, lard is actually good for you, can be purchased at a farm (co-op) in glass jars, has loads of vitamin D, and does not create the dreaded PUFAs when heated. :) Our grandmothers used lard and were in much better health than we are nowadays…just saying.


Ummm…am I being evil by suggesting you go to a restaurant and have them there?

Being pragmatic, because they buy everything in bulk, even if the tater tots are bought in plastic you’d probably use less per serve than the plastic used in making them yourself.


i have a great way to reuse oil, I MAKE SOAP OUT OF IT, i make heavy duty soap for my clothes and for the dishes, so once i fry i just filter it and keep it aside till i have enough.

the soap will not smell fried vegetables, it doesnt have any smell. and is really great.

Maybe you can ask around it you have some friends that make soap. they will know what to do with it!


How about using coconut oil? Brendan Brazier’s book, The Thrive Diet, convinced me it’s a good alternative: it doesn’t turn carcinogenic at high temperatures (which is what Dr. Weil was warning about), so you can reuse it — plus, usually it comes in a mason jar with a metal lid, so no plastic! (It does turn into a solid at room temperature, so the only real downside — apart from the fact that it ain’t cheap — is that you’d have to run it through a sieve or cheesecloth while liquid in order to get rid of the impurities, but… Read more »


It’s not a downside the coconut oil is solid at room temperature. Our bodies are 98 degrees, heat up coconut oil to above 85 degrees and it’s liquid.


bulk oil… went to a coop with an amazing bulk section even for coops, this weekend. maybe an area for nominating grocery stores, coops for awesome breadth in their bulk sections on this site or the forums, with notes on the particularly new, unique bulk items you had not seen before. like the opposite of your plastic wall of shame


Our favorite thing to dip in catsup is oven fries. Potatoes are standard, but we also use sweet potatoes, beets, carrots, parsnips, rutabagas, onion, leek, or romanesco sometimes. Just cut up the veggies, toss with olive oil, season, and roast at 400F about half an hour.

Tracey TieF

I confess that I did not know what tater tots were. Yet… I am grieving your disposed-of used oil. I am obsessively disturbed by food waste personally. I’ve been reusing oil all my life, maybe clarifying it in cheese cloth (which I wash with the dishes) or allowing the sediment to settle. And I know that yellow oils turn toxic when heated. Oils (fats) that are solid are room temperature don’t turn toxic. May I suggest you use coconut oil in a glass bottle with metal cap to fry with? Mine’s @$20 a litre, but I reuse it. I hope… Read more »


I have a cast iron frypan, with deep sides – about 3 inches. Doesn’t take much oil to put about a half inch in the bottom for frying. Deep frying is so…….unhealthy. And DOUBLE deep frying……ridiculous. Oven “frying” wedges of potatoes is way healthier and easier, Wash and cut your potatoes into wedges, rinse, and dry the wedges. Place in a bowl and sprinkle with paprika, and a little chili powder, toss to evenly coat. Drizzle a tablespoonful (or so) of olive oil over the seasoned wedges. Toss to evenly coat. Place in a single layer on a cookie sheet.… Read more »


Apologies – Tracy mentioned reusing


I can’t believe no one has mentioned that that oil can used AGAIN! Quite a few times in fact. You would only use it for frying and such – no cake baking or whatever else you use oil for, but there was no need to throw the oil away. Store in the refrigerator. Use until it seems kinda yucky – basically it will stop getting things crispy. Just ask Mark, of ketchup-making fame.


Thanks for sharing the recipe.

Karen Joy

Another super-high-heat oil is rice bran oil.

And, I second the idea of baking them, instead of frying them a second time. They get crispy at high heat (450, I think) in the oven.



Deep frying uses a lot of oil, lots of energy ( gas, electric, coal…what have you), creates all sorts of carcinogens in your food (yes…the first batch too) and the end product does terrible things to your body. I haven’t deep fried or eaten deep fried in many many years for that reason and “oven fried” is just as good. We chunk up potatoes, dip them wet into seasoning and sometimes salt then throw them in the convection oven for about twenty minutes flipping halfway through. No oil, no waste. little work and much better for you.


I wonder if you could do the same thing, but by roasting instead of frying in oil? Roast the chunks, process, form, then roast the tots? Oven ‘fried’ french fries taste as good as deep fried to me (better, actually, without all the grease), so it seems like it should work. Seems a bit labor intensive anyways – I do like your potato pancake idea.


I cook with olive oil & I reuse it. From the research I did online it says it’s okay to reuse it 2 or 3 times but no more. I didn’t see olive oil on the list up there, does is have that toxin when reused as well?


Hi I found that star brand olive oil often comes very inexpensively with coupon. Ive gotten them as cheaply as $4 per 25 oz glass bottle. Star has no plastic seal, interior seal or crimping. It comes with a perforated metal cap. Since olive oil does not generate toxins you can cook your taters guilt free and use the remaining oil to make your own tortillas chips by baking them in the oven at 350. I simply use a spoon or my fingers to spread a small amount of olive oil evenly over the tortilla then I cut them in… Read more »


I stopped deep frying because of all that kind of stuff. Sometimes I still want some deep fried okra from the garden, or fried green tomatoes. So I use just a bit in a fry pan instead of a gallon for deep-frying.

Of course something else you could have done is to make 10 lbs more tator tots, all using that already hot oil, and freeze them so next time you can reheat them in a toaster oven?


Having just prepared latkes for Hannukah, the process of frying potatoes is fresh in my mind. It seems completely unnecessary to do either of the tot-frying processes in so much oil. The latkes only require about 1/4 in of oil, and the huge inconvenience [insert tone of sarcasm] of flipping them. I imagine you could do the same with the tots!


I would think you could pan fry them in just a little oil. Or even bake them in the oven.
Oh, and I buy (local) sunflower oil out of the bulk bins at my co-op, reusing our own mason jars. No plastic there.


tater tots are actually a way for the french fry people to use up all the parts of the potato. they are potato waste product. sooooo. an easier way to do it. get your raw potato and cut up into 1 inch pieces. then pulse just like you did before. and add a little bit of salt. and the amount of cornstarch as before shape and toss in a bit of oil. then bake