For the Best Mac & Cheese, Use Tater Tots

February 13, 2018

Mac and cheese is a cute way of saying macaroni and cheese, which is a cute way of saying macaroni and cheese sauce. That’s my theory. Think about the famous “blue box,” where cheese powder teams up with milk and margarine. Or, think back even earlier—like, a couple centuries earlier—to 1769, when Elizabeth Raffald wrote The Experienced English Housekeeper. There, she gives instructions for a noodle casserole, bound with cheddar-laden béchamel, plus bread crumbs and grated cheese on top. How Martha.

Béchamel is one of the five French mother sauces. Mother because, with the addition of this or that, these sauces produce countless daughter sauces. Add cheese to béchamel, for instance, and you get Mornay. Gruyère is the classic French choice, but cheddar is classic mac and cheese.

And mac and cheese is why we’re here. Well, sort of. We were talking about this at the editorial table the other day—you know, your usual workplace chitchat—what does macaroni even mean? Macaroni is so tied to cheese—and macaroni and cheese is so tied to tiny elbows—that macaroni has become practically synonymous with that pasta shape. But, by definition, macaroni is “pasta made from semolina and shaped in the form of slender tubes.” Which means mac and cheese could just as well be made with cavatappi or penne or bucatini. Or tater tots!

Is that you, macaroni?! Photo by Julia Gartland

Okay, that’s a stretch—but let’s give a whirl. Bake tater tots until golden and crispy. Smother in cheddar-rich Mornay. Blanket in more cheese because cheese. Broil until bubbly and freckly. Because tots are traditionally baked on a sheet tray, I wanted to keep them there, much like our co-founder Amanda’s extra-crunchy mac and cheese. The result is my new favorite cheesy potato gratin or potatoey not-mac and cheese. Let’s just call it dinner.

What’s your favorite way to adapt mac and cheese? Or dress up tater tots? Spill all your secrets in the comments below!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Mari Olsdatter
    Mari Olsdatter
  • Jennifer Smith
    Jennifer Smith
  • Jacqueline Schick
    Jacqueline Schick
  • Christa Jennings
    Christa Jennings
  • Jennifer Batchelder
    Jennifer Batchelder
Emma was the food editor at Food52. She created the award-winning column, Big Little Recipes, and turned it into a cookbook in 2021. These days, she's a senior editor at Bon Appétit, leading digital cooking coverage. Say hello on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.


Mari O. February 17, 2019
Pardon the fat finger spelling of Dijon mustard.
Mari O. February 17, 2019
I do it with partially thawed steak fries, (cut in chunks), coarsely diced onions, diagonally sliced celery, white sauce with cheese, a little mayo stirred into sauce & a touch of dinon mustard, a drained can of tuna, covered with aluminum foil & baked @ 350° F for an hour.
Jennifer S. March 2, 2018
(Homemade, of course) mac & cheese dressed up with broccoli, tomatoes and hot dogs. I guess if you're feeling fancy you could use smoked sausage instead :D
Jacqueline S. February 18, 2018
So, Tater Tots come into my freezer when my dearly loved comes shopping. Gotta be Tater Tots (not some off brand). Well, one day during the holiday season, it occurred to me that they taste like latkes. So, hey serve them with sour cream and/or apple sauce. Can't eat them any other way - but will try the "gratin" approach. So "mac n cheese"? Ours is with matzah farfel and not mac at all - the kids rather have it that way
Christa J. February 18, 2018
I'm thinking of adding some crumbled bacon with the cheese topping. And if there are leftovers (I know, IF), add broth and milk, take the stick blender to it, and make yummy cheesy potato soup.
Jennifer B. February 18, 2018
I'm starving now and I just woke up to see all if this yumminess! Lol I'm headed to the kitchen. This is definitely a diversion from tater tot casserole but it could become a new adaptation! Mmmm...
Nancy February 14, 2018
Of course! The macaroni is there as an easy, quick cooking carrier for the sauce.
So, Yes tater tots!
And maybe gnocchi if you're feeling ambitious...?!
Kevin V. February 13, 2018
would fried tater tots work just as well?
tossed in a gooey cheese sauce?
Emma L. February 13, 2018
Misfitwife February 13, 2018!!!
Julie February 13, 2018
I need this in my life right now!