Jason Kottke’s Tator Tot Hotdish

December 14th, 2003 · 46 Comments

A perfectly balanced midwestern meal: meat, potatoes, vegetable & bread.

Last month Jason Kottke posted his family’s recipe for tator tot hotdish. Having also grown up in rural Wisconsin I’m very familiar with hotdish culture and with tator tot hotdish in particular. I can remember eating this as a kid frequently. It was fun.. the tator tots go IN the casserole! whoo! Plus the rhyming makes it fun to say when you’re 7 years old. Macaroni casserole? No! I want tator tot hotdish!

The thing that struck me about Jason’s recipe is that that tator tots were on the bottom.. and when my family made it we topped it off with tator tots. I wrote Jason to tell him that the tator tot’s place is always on the top and he told me he thought tator tots on the top were sacrilegious. So.. I tried to let it go. . .but I just couldn’t get it out of my mind! Tator tots.. on the bottom?!? What kind of a nut puts the tator tots on the bottom!?!? And cheddar cheese? Puh-lease!

Well, boys & girls, I decided to give it a go.. tator tots on the bottom.. and I will admit that the Kottke family recipe is very good.. but I still prefer my tator tots on the top where they get nice and toasty, but remain moist from the casserole below.

The Bowden Family recipe is basically the same as the Kottke Family recipe… ground beef, onion, cream soups, milk, french-cut beans (or I’ve used peas or mixed vegetables before). The difference is in assembly. Pour the meat/vegetable mixture on the bottom of a 9×13 baking dish and then top with tator tots (in rows over the meat/vegetable mixture). And NO CHEESE (even though I know that every good hotdish has cheese, especially in The Dairy State).

Jason Kottke, stop drowning the poor little tator tots! I challenge you to put the tator tots on the top and see if you don’t like it better!!!

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46 Comments so far ↓

  • Richard

    What? on the bottom? dont they just get all soft and mushy? on the top they get all golden brown.

  • rachelleb

    soft? yes. mushy? yes. golden brown? no.

  • sam

    In my (incidentally also midwestern) experience, Tator Tots are best enjoyed not fully cooked, so you can taste the freezer burn in the middle better.

  • mom

    Boy, It’s been a long time since I’ve had Tater-Tot Hotdish. And yes, they go on TOP !

  • joe s

    I once had a housemate from Manitowoc,
    who made us a hot dish out of tater tots.
    I’d forgotten ’til now,
    that it made me wish how,
    she had stayed north of Oconomowoc.

  • rachelleb

    hahahhahahhhah!! good thing my roommate isnt home or she’d wonder what i was laughing so loud about in here!! it trips me out to hear you dropping all the owoc city names!

    some other wisconsin city names that are fun to say: kaukauna, wauwatosa, winneconne, ashwaubenon, eau claire, kickapoo, mosinee, pewaukee. i think oconomowoc is the most fun though.

    now, here’s the test.. did your former housemate put the tater tots on the top or the bottom?

  • rachelleb

    oh, weyauwega is fun to say too.. though, technically it isn’t a city, since it’s unincorporated.

  • joe s

    Aargh! I don’t remember if the tater tops were top or bottom. But really, isn’t that a personal issue between the tater tots and the meat/vegetable mixture? Mary was from Manitowoc. She and another roommate, Susan from Wausau (i think), gave Jack from Virginia and Joe from NY a Wisconsin dinner one sunday.

    BTW, the non-comprehending “tater tots…on the bottom?” responses from the Bowdens are priceless.

  • Gothamist

    Blogs: Baking, Best Of, Birthdays

    rachelle tries out the Kottke family recipe for Tater Tot hotdish, but prefers her family’s recipe, which is basically the same, but with Tater Tots on the top, not the bottom as the Kottke recipe specifies. Gothamist, raised in the mean streets of Bro…

  • janelle

    fuuuuggggg, this sounds sooooo goooood. i’m going to bake some this weekend with my upper midwestern boyfriend.

  • rachelle

    janelle, make sure you put the tator tots on the top!

  • Rob

    Bottom-totting is madness. Madness!!

    Besides, that doesn’t allow you to position the tots vertically, so as to get maximum tot coverage.

  • Richard

    Nertical tots? INGENIOUS! I never thought of that.

    I did try once to flip the tots over half way through baking to allow the normally soggy bottoms to get nice and crispy. It didn’t turn out as well as i had hoped.

  • rachelleb

    whoa.. vertical? rob, your cray-zay!!! does it take more than one bag to do that? on gothamist one girl was saying she put the tots on the top but then also mixed a few in the meat mixture.

  • Rob

    With the giganto Family Lot-O-Tot Pack*, there’s enough to cover the 9×13 pan going vertically with a few left over to scatter on top for munching later while you’re waiting for the pan to cool.

    Even growing up in Wisconsin though, our Tater Tot casseroles were cheeseless… and I don’t know how we escaped the word “hotdish,” but then we said “soda” too.   : )

    * (Equates to the largest bag of Ore-Ida the store carries)

  • rachelleb

    rob, do you live in NYC? you should be in the bake-off with that twist on the recipe!

  • Wisco

    Wanted to thank you for this post. I rushed home from work last night and made my own hotdish! (taters on top, with cheese). Wonderful.

    I grew up in SE Wisconsin, so the wonders of cream of [blank]-soup are well known to me. But for some reason we always called such concoctions casseroles–never hotdish. And we NEVER used tatertots, either on the top or bottom. I’ve emailed my parents to see what they have to say about this omission. Their families, in point of fact, are based in Iowa and Illinois. This may explain a lot.



  • rachelle

    wisco, im glad you liked the hot dish (and that you put the tots on top!). did you put the cheesed under the tots or on the top?

    i’m interested to hear what your parents say. it makes me wonder where exactly kottke lived in wi.. if it was near where i lived. maybe this hotdish is extremely regionalized and they didnt make it in SE WI.

  • Matt

    A nice twist on the recipe is to add carrots and peas to the hamburger and soup mixture. That’s the way my Mom always makes it, and it’s delicious! She never uses cheese whiz though. I think cheese must be a somewhat recent addition to the recipe.

  • Penny

    Hey, is this discussion really over? Can’t we get more recipies and stuff going on with hotdish vs casseroll? I always add creamed corn instead of one of the soups. I’ve made it tots on top and tots on bottom. Like it best with tots on top. Good with or with out the cheesebeing from Wisconsin I feel obligated to add the cheese. State loyalty and all that stuff you know. This is really fun and I really enjoyed reading everyones comments. Hope there will be more.


  • Jessi

    Grew up in NW part of WI, now live in SE part. I said pop growing up, soda now. Always said hot-dish for a cooked main course (includes meat, potato, and veg) and a said casserole if it was a side dish or cold.

    Tots on top. No cheese.



  • Chad

    No cheese?? The Missouri version (or at least my family’s Missouri version) is incomplete without the abundance of cheese topping off the dish!


  • Tera

    Ok, I had NO idea this dish was so popular. I know growing up we ate this a handful of times, but it was by no means a main staple! Someone mentioned it at work the other day and I decided that it sounded good. Looking for recipes, I found this forum. After reading so many different recipe variations, I think I’m going to get crazy and put the tator tots on the top AND the bottom, WITH the cheese, AND some of those Durkee’s french onions!! Thanks for all of your input!

  • Amber

    Craziness…I find my-self in college craving tator tot hotdish so I thought I would look it up on the web…but tator tots on top, that is just nuts…I am from wisconsin too, you mean to tell me that only people in this blessed state get to eat tator tot hotdish, how sad for all the other states.

  • Tammy

    I am glad I found this “discussion”. I was looking for recipes for tator tot hotdish and found this. I grew up in Minnesota/North Dakota and was glad to see others put green beans in their tator tot hot dish. Most people I talk to here (Oklahoma) put corn in it. I like the cheese addition, but growing up, it didn’t occur to my mom to add it. Tots must be on top, otherwise too mushy.

    I am trying a new version tonight, as I had cheese soup. We’ll see how it goes. ???

    ps. I will always call it “pop”, unless someone doesn’t understand… It has happened on several occasions!!!

  • rachelleb.com

    Corie’s Macaroni & Cheese

    Yesterday I made Corie’s Macaroni & Cheese recipe again. Luckily this time it wasn’t as dramatic as the last.. remember the crying while grating the onion photo? This recipe, unlike the one for Jason Kottke’s tator tot hotdish, is…

  • Ann

    Midwestern born and bred!
    You have to have them on top. BECAUSE we don’t cook the hamburger first. Just pat your raw burger into the bottom of your pan. Top with tater tots and then spread on top one can cream of mushroom and one can of cheese soup. Takes five minutes to get ready for the oven (although you do have to cook it at least an hour this way).

  • Miss Mess

    I grew up in NDak and we always put the tater tots on top. Never had it with cheese on top, tho. My husband mentioned that he was hungry for tater tot hotdish and since it had been quite awhile since I had made it, I thought I’d look it up online and found myself here. Quite awhile back, I lived in Reno for a couple years and whenever we mentioned “hotdish”, no one knew what we were talking about. To them it was a casserole. And the “pop” thing, I still say “pop” and everyone here in Nodak knows what I am talking about. Some say “soda”. Either way, we know what it is. And about the vertical tots, I think vertical or horizontal depends on which way you’re looking at the pan, don’t you? Haha. I guess I just dump the bag on top and spread them around – nothing real neat and uniform. I will try the cheese on top tonight, tho, but I’m thinking about grating some good old Kraft American.

  • //gtmcknight

    Five Stars

    Things that I consume that are so tasty, I must give them a perfect rating. Alfie (movie). I had seen the preview for it, and wanted to see it. It looked like a sorta ‘How to be a player’ kinda…

  • Ronda

    I just had to add my 2 cents. Born in the UP, moved to Minnesoooota, although only Jesse, former gov, says it that way, I’ve been on both sides of Wisconsin.
    Mom never used a 9X13 pan, always corn, metal casserole pan, never cheese and tots THROWN on top, in between keeping my brothers from inflicting more damage than therapy can fix, she had no time to nicely arrange those tots.
    Whenever I put in a 9X13 pan, it ends up dry, I’ve added Durkee onion.
    Michigan has some great names like Negaunee and Ingadine, although I know I spelled that one wrong and Manistique.

  • Paula

    Okay – my sis directed me to this site. In her e-mail she mentioned the debate about arranging the tots top vs bottom and something about vertically. I just couldn’t picture it – ended up thinking it was rows across the pan of meat mixture and tots – kind of to look like stripes. Thought to myself – these people have WAAAAY too much time on their hands. I get it now – but have to admit I’m a little disappointed. The rows might have been cool!

    Now that I’m hungry……

  • Matt

    Just stumbled across this site; grew up in SW MN and am having some friends over to my place in Brooklyn for a hotdish night. Good to know there’s other people out there who can appreciate it when my mom sends me a hotdish recipe and the big “twist” is you can add the water from the canned vegetables to the canned cream condensed soups to mix up the flavors. And tator tots on top or bottom? We always had them on top. Scattered. And in a casserole pan.

    But no recipes for things with corn flakes on top? That was always the height of haute couture.

    I tried explaining to friends that hotdishes are also the quintessential death-in-the-family gesture…. your family is going through emotions… they just want to cope… people bring over scads of things that say, “Bake me at 350 degrees for 1 – 1 1/2 hours.” For some reason, my friends didn’t get it. I think when my grandfather died, we had 6 or 7 in the fridge at one point. But deaths and potlucks; that’s where the hotdish always seemed to really shine.

    Now to just find the recipe for the green bean hotdish that my mom said, “Is just on that can of onion rings that you buy…” Buy in Brooklyn? Will find out today…

  • sue

    I grew up in central WI and I love tator tot hotdish. Cream of celery, green beens, ground beef mix with some tots mix in; the rest of the tots go on top. Always made in a hotdish bowl. My husband is from Oklahoma and thinks I am crazy for even using the word hotdish! It’s a casserole! We can agree on one thing-the usage of the word “pop”.

    Has anyone else here heard of making chili with ground beef, beans, macaroni noodles, and tomato juice? Or is it just a central WI thing? My husband thinks I am nuts for even suggesting to put noodles in chili.

  • sue

    oh ya, and Weyauwega IS incorporated!!!!

  • Scott

    Just poped it in the oven. Tots on top. After it’s done, i’ll apply an ample amount of shredded cheader on top and let set for another 5. And far as corn flakes on top of stuff, (we used wheaties)was pork chops with cream of mushroom soup and cover them with wheaties, pop ‘em in the oven till done (?). Opps, forgot to set the timer………love the posts.
    Wisconsin’s Fishotter….

  • Robby

    Hi! Ho! I found this site while poking around for tater tot casserol ideas on different things to put with the “burger stuff.” I`ve always put my tots on the bottom (I was trained by a Wisconsin cook in these matters.) The notion of tots on top had never occured to me. I threw caution to the wind and decided to try it, but my concience nagged me SOOOO I decided to compramise. Voila!! Tots on top AND bottom, burger stuff in the middle. It`s wonderful try it!! I do need to confess though, that I eat tater tot casserole mostly as an excuse to eat the tater tots. Forgive me mother for I have sinned.
    I have to admit that “tots on top,” is fun to say too. I`m from northern Illinois and say pop. My son who was in boot camp at Ft Campbell, Ky got in the habit of asking for soda pop. Does that makes him bi-lingual?:-) This is a GREAT SITE and I`ll definitely be back! Thanks

  • Pat

    UFFDA,,,,,,You are all outa your mind!!!!!!!!
    I say put some lutefisk in for good measure,,,a Minnesota girl born and bred!!!!

  • Naomi

    when i made tator tot hotdish i just cooked 1 pound of meat and mixed that together with cream of mushroom soup and a cup of water and a can of mixed vegetables(drain juice), and then just put the tator tots on top and put it in at 400* (degrees) and cooked it for 20 mins. to a half an hour

  • Naomi

    oh and i am only 13 and i am a indian and not to be mean those pictures look gross

  • Amy

    I am a transplant, Milwaukee to Minneapolis. We always said Casserole in WI. I didn’t hear Hotdish until I moved up to Minneapolis. I’m having a Casserole party featuring all the classics…Green Bean Casserole, Tuna Noodle Casserole (with Corn Flakes on top) and Tater Tot Hotdish. Fun! I came to this site looking for the Definitive Tatar Tot Hotdish recipe since my mom didn’t make that one. Being from Wisconsin I am contractually obligated to throw some cheese in there. Every casserole MUST involve at least 1 kind of Cambells Cream of Soup and grated cheddar cheese. Mmmm.

  • Joe S

    I didn’t realize there was such a tater tot hotdish following. I grew up in northeast SD and this was always one of my favorites. I definitely vote for tater tots on top and you have to include the cheese.

  • John

    Hey der! I am originally from Sheboygan, WI and grew up on Tator Tot Casserole. My grandparents made it with the tots on the top and used a round dish to bake it. I believe it was also layered with ground beef and tator tots, using cream of mushroom or onion (not sure which). No veggies or cheese, although that does sound good. I am looking for a receipe. It would be great if someone could post one on this site for all…..if they aren’t violating any family secrets. Danks, Hey.

  • joe

    do you have anymore tater tot resicipes?

  • a Minnesotan

    You need Hot Dish Heaven published in 2006 by the MN Historical Society. The recipes are bona fide. You can buy it at B&N ($15, paperback) or amazon. Really fun stories, very well-written, notes, lots of alternative options, etc. There are 3 versions of cream sauce (aka white sauce) in the back which is great b/c i HATE cream of anything soup. which is why i never ate hotdishes growing up. simple authentic recipes with charming stories. the tator tots are definitely not on the bottom and there is no cheese called for in the same recipe in this book. they are standing on end.

    There is also a book called Crazy for Casseroles but it seems to me to be more “gourmet” casseroles than traditional no-fuss fare – like the receipes are almost right but not quite.

  • Former Minnesotan

    WOW! I have never seen so much response to a dish. I was taught how to make tater tot hot dish when I lived in Minnesota about 21 years ago. I was taught tots on top, no cheese,and french cut green beans with mushroom soup. I would never put cheese on it. Tots on the bottom and top sounds okay but to only put them on the bottom???? NO WAY! lol

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