Why Tater Tots Always Taste Better At A Restaurant Than At Home

Tater Tots are seemingly everywhere these days. (Did you know that Ore-Ida has trademarked the name "Tater Tot?" Technically when you refer to Tater Tots, you're only referring to Ore-Ida's red-bagged tasty potato morsels, even though we all know a Tater Tot can be many things, just like a Kleenex can be any tissue and a Band-Aid can be any bandage. This etymological process wherein a branded word loses its distinct brand identity is known as genericide.) But back to potato tots. You can order them at fast food restaurants. They're popping up on fine dining menus. According to figures from market research firm Datassential reported by Nation's Restaurant News, as of 2022, tots were found on 7.6% of restaurant menus, an increase of more than 40% since 2018.

While tots are trending, they're also seemingly nostalgic. You can likely recall at least a few childhood meals that included one of the many frozen varieties of Tater Tots, pulled fresh from the oven. Maybe you chowed down your fair share of soggy tots during school lunches. However, when you think back on all the tots you've eaten outside of a restaurant setting, you can likely agree that they just weren't as good. They were missing a special something. Restaurant tots are usually superior. It's not a coincidence. And it's not in your head. It's all because restaurants do quite a few things to make their tots taste better; here are their tricks and how you can replicate them at home.

Restaurants add more salt

This tip is pretty simple and straightforward. Pull a sheet pan of tots from your oven, and you're likely pairing them with at least one condiment. Why? Because the tots are pretty tasteless otherwise. Plain frozen tots just don't carry the same amount of flavor as restaurant tots. This can be partially attributed to a lack of salt. Restaurants use more salt on their tots. Let's look at some evidence.

A serving of classic Ore-Ida Tater Tots offers not a small amount of sodium, at 440 milligrams per serving, or 18% of your recommended daily value. However, that's nothing compared to the 890 milligrams of sodium found in a medium size of Sonic's classic tots. It would make sense to assume that Sonic's frozen tots available at grocery stores would match the salt content of the restaurant's tots, but that's not the case. The grocery version of Sonic tots has even loss salt than the Ore-Ida Tater Tots, at 360 milligrams of sodium per serving. Go back to the restaurant tot side of things, and the sodium increases again, with a small order of Taco John's potato olés, that brand's take on a tot, coming in at 1,030 milligrams of sodium. In other words, the next time you make tots at home, sprinkle on a little extra salt.

Restaurants add extra seasoning and spices

It's not just the salt that makes a big difference on tots, though. Restaurants also use an array of extra seasonings and spices for bigger, better, more noteworthy flavors in their tots. Dunkin', for example, offers tots. The brand calls them hash browns, but let's be real — they're tots. Hash browns are julienned potatoes either served straight-up, diner-style, or pressed into a patty, McDonald's breakfast-style. If it's bite-sized, fried, relatively circular, and made from potato bits that have been processed to the nth degree, it's a tot. Dunkin' hash browns (which you can make at home with this recipe) include a proprietary seasoning blend that incorporates sage, garlic, parsley, and a few other secret ingredients. Similarly, SmashBurger tosses its tots in a mix of rosemary, garlic, and olive oil.

In comparison, Ore-Ida's classic tots don't have a lot going on, flavor-wise. The ingredients list on a bag of the so-called seasoned Tater Tots includes dehydrated onion, salt, and "natural flavor." Otherwise, it's just potatoes, veggie oil, corn flour, sugar, and a few chemical compounds. So, try leveling up your at-home tot game by breaking into the spice rack.

Restaurants fry their tots rather than bake them

It's well known that many restaurants deep-fry their Tater Tots, just like they deep-fry their french fries and a lot of other foods. Deep-frying is a special step in the cooking process that makes all the difference, thanks to the science behind it. When you deep-fry a food, moisture within it begins to evaporate rapidly. As this happens, free fatty acids form, as does a starchy exterior crust, which retains some of that moisture while ensuring the food doesn't soak up the oil it's submerged in. Deep-frying also utilizes the Maillard reaction, the process by which food browns, and further chemical reactions occur that ultimately make food tastier. When fried foods turn golden brown, or a steak develops a char on the grill, that's thanks to the Maillard reaction. All that said, there's a scientific reason why deep-fried food tastes so good — and you're not going to get that same flavor profile by baking.

Most of us just don't have a deep fryer at home, so when we cook up a bag of frozen tots, we reach for that sheet pan, crank the oven up to 450 degrees Fahrenheit, and pop 'em in. Unfortunately, that leaves a lot to be desired in the texture and flavor departments. So, consider exploring deep-frying or go with the next-best cooking method: air frying.

Restaurants transform tots into new dishes

Yes, most of the time, when you order tots at a fast food restaurant, you'll get just a greasy bag or boat of tots, with some salt or seasoning. However, other places, including fine dining restaurants, are transforming tots into totally new dishes, using the humble potato as a canvas on which to paint a culinary masterpiece. In 2016, Pizza Hut introduced Tater Tot pizza, with a crust made from tots, in New Zealand (sadly, the menu item never made it to the rest of the world). Some cooks have used Tater Tots as the basis of a Thanksgiving staple, combining frozen tots with Italian sausage, spices and seasonings, and potato flakes, to craft an easy but surprising holiday stuffing.

In short, if you're not using tots to make completely new dishes beyond a simple side or appetizer, you're missing out. Midwesterners have already figured this out with the Minnesota hotdish, which first appeared in the 1930s and quickly gained popularity. Later versions subbed out the elbow macaroni for Tater Tots. If you're unfamiliar, the Tater Tot hotdish is a casserole that typically mixes beef, veggies, and a condensed soup-based sauce and nestles it all beneath a crispy-crunchy Tater Tot topping.

Restaurants take more time to make their tots

How long does it really take you to make Tater Tots at home? From freezer drawer to oven to plate, it might take 30 minutes or so. The process might not take even that long at fast food restaurants that are simply dumping a bag of frozen tots into a deep fryer basket. But if you're craving the types of tots you get at more upscale eateries, you might be surprised to discover just how long some chefs take to make their gourmet tots.

Chef David Kinch has received a lot of attention for the tots served at his Michelin-starred restaurant Manresa in Los Gatos, California. While his recipe is relatively simple, it takes at least 12 hours to complete. Kinch uses just duck fat, potatoes, thyme, and salt for his oblong tots. After cooking the potatoes once, they have to be pressed and left to rest for multiple hours before being deep-fried. In an interview with U.S. Foods, chef and owner Jess Voss of Jamber Wine Pub in San Francisco said the rosemary mashed tots with jam served at her restaurant are "the most time-consuming item on our menu to prep — and we can't make enough of them."

Some restaurants make their tots from scratch

The restaurants that are taking multiple hours and lots of prep work to make their tots aren't just opening a bag of frozen spuds. They're actually making their tots from scratch. While you might not have ever considered this before (tots can seem inherently processed in such a way that it would be incredibly difficult to replicate them at home), it is a possibility. So, if you've never considered making Tater Tots from scratch, this is your sign to try it out — and, no, while chef David Kinch may take 12-plus hours to do so, you can prep and fry homemade Tater Tots much, much faster.

To make Tater Tots from scratch, you'll need to cook your potatoes twice (with all the different kinds of potatoes out there, go with russets, which are better for frying). You can do the first round of cooking via either boiling or frying. Your diced potatoes will need a binding agent, such as flour or cornstarch, plus any seasonings that you want to use. Once you've shaped your potato mixture into tot form, all you have to do is fry them until finished.

Restaurants cook their tots longer

Okay, there's one caveat to this truth. Restaurants may not cook their tots necessarily longer in terms of minutes on the clock. Most are deep-frying their tots, after all, and deep-frying a tot doesn't take as long as baking tots in the oven. However, restaurants do cook their tots longer in terms of letting the tots cook to a greater level of doneness than you might at home. This leads to a crispier, crunchier texture on the outside, helping you avoid the much-dreaded soggy tot.

So, in that vein, throw out your idea of how long to cook your Tater Tots when you throw out the bag that they came in. Most instructions will tell you to cook your tots at 400 to 450 degrees Fahrenheit for 20 to 30 minutes. But that's just not long enough in most cases. Sometimes, it can take anywhere from 40 minutes to even 60 minutes for you to reach peak tot doneness. Rely on your senses rather than what the directions on the bag say; if the tots don't look golden-brown and crispy all over, they're simply not done yet.

Restaurants get creative with tot shapes and sizes

Sometimes, you just need a little variety in your life, and that may mean shaking up your tot size and shape, like so many restaurants do. Forget the boring cylindrical shape of the classic Tater Tot, and go bold. This is easiest when you make your tots from scratch at home, but there are also plenty of other shapes in the freezer aisle, too. (You may find that different shapes are a better fit for your preferred cooking method as well.)

Just consider all the possibilities. Chef David Kinch's gourmet tater tots have more of an oblong shape, reminiscent of a mozzarella stick. Chick-fil-A and Dunkin' offer flatter, rounder tot circles. Del Taco offers hash brown sticks. There are even tots shaped like Tetris pieces, known as puzzle potatoes. You've likely also seen the tots that are shaped like smiley-faces, too, in the freezer aisle, complete with little (somewhat unsettling) eyes and grins.

Restaurants don't just stick to the standard russets for tots

Generally, russet potatoes are preferred for any sort of frying, as they are high in starch and low in moisture. This means that the potato won't break completely apart when exposed to high temperatures in a fryer or oven, but it also won't stay relatively firm, like a potato that you might want for a potato salad or beef stew. Instead, it ends up somewhere in the middle, with a crunchy exterior and a soft and fluffy interior. That said, restaurants sometimes move beyond the standard russets for their tots, bringing intrigue and variety to the tot game, something you might want to mimic at home.

For example, Sonic tested new tots in 2020 with a surprising ingredient: broccoli. (If you're attempting to steer clear of excess carbs, both broccoli and cauliflower make great substitutes for spuds when making tots at home). At some restaurants, though, like the Lazy Dog Restaurant chain with about four dozen locations around the country, they're sticking to the spud family but still giving tots new life with sweet potato tots.

They've made tots a breakfast food

Hash browns are breakfast food. Tater Tots, though, are more commonly associated with other fried foods and are served alongside burgers, chicken strips, or corn dogs. However, hash browns and tots are so similar that it just makes sense that tots would make their way onto breakfast menus. Today, tots are firmly a part of breakfast offerings at Chick-fil-A and Dunkin', and even Taco Bell tested breakfast tots at the end of 2023.

If you incorporate tots into your breakfasts at home, don't just settle for plain-Jane tots alongside your bacon and eggs. Get creative. Follow Taco Bell's lead and top those tots with some scrambled eggs, your breakfast meat of choice, and cheese. Go Tater Tot hotdish-style by using them in one of the many breakfast casseroles that are perfect for weekend brunch. Use them in place of your typical potatoes in a breakfast hash. Add them in with your eggs to take that omelet to the next level. You can even cook frozen Tater Tots in your waffle iron.

Restaurants top and pair your tots to perfection

At restaurants, even if they're still serving your tots up in tot form, without transforming those tots into casseroles or Thanksgiving stuffing or waffles, they're still likely offering you the option of some pretty tasting toppings and pairings. Those extras are limited only by your imagination and can get pretty extravagant.

For example, The Cheesecake Factory used to serve loaded baked potato tots. Sonic has offered chili cheese tots. Other restaurants have topped tots with the contents of a Philly cheesesteak, pulled pork, or the gravy and cheese curds typically seen in poutine. Tater Tots have been substituted as the base for nachos and even been paired with caviar. Curry, Kewpie mayo, sriracha — it's all been found atop tots. When you think about it, it makes sense. Tots are simple, at their core. Anything you can do with a potato — which is quite a lot — you can do with a Tater Tot. So, get out there, and top your tots with creativity. You might just find your homemade tots soon rival anything served at your favorite restaurant.