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Frozen tater tots are a gift on busy weekdays, raucous late nights, and every hour in between. Unlike frozen fries, which never seem to live up to freshly made ones, tater tots straight from the freezer consistently deliver on flavor and texture. Dipped in ketchup, eaten plain, or covered in cheese (if you’re not familiar with the term “totcho,” the concept should be self-explanatory), they’re a crowd-pleasing side or snack that requires no work other than turning on the oven. Homemade tater tots are an admirable undertaking, but when the frozen kind are so reliable, I’d honestly save my cooking energy for something else.
So who makes the best store-bought frozen tater tots? I put my family to work to find out.
Having written about food for more than a decade, I’ve conducted my fair share of taste tests — some more essential than others. Given the frequency with which I now serve frozen tots for dinner, this one felt important. With three little ones, I’m not going out as much as I used to (understatement of the year), meaning I don’t have as much time as I once did for things like a tater tots crawl through New York City neighborhoods, a map I may or may not have compiled at one point in my life. So it’s nice to determine the best of something I cook regularly.
As for the qualifications of the other testers involved? Like her mother, my daughter has enjoyed tater tots from the school cafeteria, and there isn’t a frozen food she doesn’t like. One son has just started taking an after-school cooking class, so, you know. The other son just started eating solids. My husband is a bonafide tater tots lover who has been eating them for more than 35 years. He puts a premium on texture and tasted more tots for this project than I care to divulge. To round out the range of experience levels, our babysitter, who is from Spain and didn’t grow up eating the delicacy, also weighed in.
We tasted nine brands of frozen tater tots, all cooked according to the bag’s instructions, which range from 20 to 25 minutes in an oven that’s between 400° and 450° Fahrenheit. Three of the brands were good but not great, so we ranked our top six.
Not that it was relevant for the nine-month-old and four-year-old who don’t yet know how to read, or the just-starting-to-read six-year-old with zero brand recognition, but I set up a blind taste test. After baking the tots, I put them in numbered bowls and we each tried them plain and with ketchup. I recorded reactions and ratings on a scale of one to five, one being “okay” and five being “ideal.”
Note: These days, there are quite a few veggie tot options, as in cauliflower, or broccoli and cheese, but we didn’t try any of these. We stuck to classic, potato-only tater tots.
In my book, the ideal tots have a shatteringly crisp exterior. They contain a creamy interior that isn’t at all gummy or chewy. They have enough potato flavor that I remember what I’m eating and not too much spice or other distracting flavors. They need to be salty but not too salty, and they must have some kind of X factor that keeps me coming back for more.
I was pretty surprised by the results, ranked below from the ones we loved the most to the ones we still liked enough to polish off. The tots we all loved the best weren’t the ones I grew up eating, and they haven’t been our go-to brand. That may change now, but the truth is, we’d be happy to eat any of these.
1. Signature Select Shredded Potatoes Seasoned Tater Puffs
These were an immediate favorite; this bowl was the first one to empty. The outside stayed crunchy while the inside almost melted in your mouth. There was just the right level of salt, and a welcome hint of onion flavor. The three adults in the room unanimously voted them number one and the kids gave them two thumbs up. These were the clear winners.
2. Lamb Weston Tater Puffs
“I love #5,” my daughter kept repeating, referring to how this bag was labeled in the blind taste test. Turns out we all agreed. Similar in taste and texture to the Signature Select brand, these tots were crispy outside, creamy inside, with enough going on but not too much. They took second place, however, because they tasted a little greasier than the Signature Select brand.
3. Wegmans Tater Puffs
“Yum,” I kept hearing from the kids after we dug into these crispy potato nuggets. Inside, they were almost butter-like in consistency, and like the other favorites, retained the crispy exterior as they cooled. “I think these are a little bit good,” said my four-year-old, who likes to talk a lot, as he reached for his second. One of us felt they might be too salty, but the others thought they deserved second place. This was a tough call but we ultimately decided they didn’t win out over Lamb Weston.
4. Cascadian Farm Organic Potato Spud Puppies
These tots, which were a little darker in color than the others, had an especially soft interior but not quite enough crunch on the exterior. Still, their ever-so-slightly nutty flavor grew on me, and the bowl didn’t stay full for long as everyone kept going back in. “Different, but I like it,” my son said.
5. Alexia Organic Yukon Select Puffs
Next came these tots, to which my daughter gave two thumbs up, but my son gave a sideways thumb, which stands for “okay.” They had a perfectly smooth inside, but the outside had too much of a chew, just not crisp enough for that satisfying contrast. They almost stuck onto my teeth (maybe not the worst thing, but also not the best).
6. Ore-Ida Golden Tater Tots
These were the tater tots I grew up eating, and I can still remember seeing them in trays in the school cafeteria and munching on them with friends. I recall them being delicious, and it turns out, they still are. Unlike the rest on this list, though, they’re a bit piecier inside, meaning you can taste distinct shreds of potatoes if you’re paying attention. If you’re devouring them by the handful like some of us were, you might not. My daughter said she loved them. They may have been a little lacking in flavor, but it was nothing that a little ketchup couldn’t solve.
Photographer: Paul Quitoriano
Art Direction: Sarah Ceniceros