Do you love tuna salad sandwiches like I do? Everyone has a preference on what makes a perfect tuna salad. There are also a million adaptations – yogurt instead of mayo? Hard boiled eggs? Pickles? Capers? BBQ sauce? (YUCK – but I’ve seen it). I learned a recipe for “real” tuna salad in college when I worked prepping food in a seafood deli/restaurant. That restaurant is long gone, but the memory of their perfect tuna salad stays with me. And now I’m sharing it with you!
Chunk Light or Chunk White?
When I was younger and just starting to fend for myself in terms of providing my own meals, canned tuna was a pantry staple. I grew up in New England and my mom always bought Geisha brand. When I moved to the south, I couldn’t find it so started just grabbing whatever off the shelf.
I had a few really bad tuna salad sandwiches before I realized that there were three different kinds of tuna in a can.
“Solid white” is made from bigger, higher quality white albacore tuna and is essentially one really solid piece in the can. “Chunk white” is also white albacore but slightly lower quality cuts that are in chunks when you open the can.
“Chunk light” tuna is made from skipjack or yellowfin tuna. It is noticeably darker, sometimes pink, and a lot more pungent. I think it mislead me making me think “lighter was better”. I bought the chunk light several times not realizing my mistake. In my opinion, chunk light belongs on the cat’s dinner plate and not in your tuna salad sandwich.
As my palate got fancier, I discovered jarred tunas like the Tonnino brand shown above. Packed in oil or water, don’t let these fancy packages fool you. Read the label to see what kind of fish you are buying.
In general, stay away from oil packed if you plan to make tuna salad. It’s just too greasy. I’ve used the oil-packed tuna in other recipes. There’s a place for it, just not in your tuna salad sandwich.
The Taste of Home
The place I worked in college was called Boston Seafood and it was in Gainesville, Florida. Being from New England, I gravitated to it because they served all the New England classics. Chowdah, lobstah and steamahs.
Boston Seafood was part take-out deli and part eat-in restaurant. They had a huge live lobster setup in the back and flew in live Maine lobsters several times a week. The lobster rolls were legit. The crab salad was perfection. And, of course, they made tuna salad for sandwiches in the restaurant but you could also buy it to go from the deli. One bite and you knew you were light years away from Starkist or Bumblebee.
Keep It Real
Part of my job was to prep all those delicious salads. They provided me the recipes to make huge batches. I was in heaven. On my very first day, my job was to make the yellowfin tuna salad. I asked where the canned tuna was and instead got directed to a large tray of freshly steamed yellowfin tuna. It was a moment of realization. Tuna doesn’t have to come out of a can!
If You Can Boil Water…
I get that one of the purposes of canned tuna is to have something you can through together quickly and easily. I’d argue that steaming a piece of fresh tuna is worth the extra 5 minutes it takes. If you can boil water, you can steam a piece of tuna. Your tuna salad will thank you.
Not In Tune With Your Tuna?
Ever find that you’ve purchased a piece of fresh tuna from the grocery and then you stare at it in the fridge for a few days, not really in the mood for it or not sure what to do with it? It happens. It happened to me this week.
When I see fresh yellowfin in the fish section (read the little sign, “fresh” means “hasn’t been frozen”), I almost always buy it. I usually cut it into chunks, wrap it in bacon and sear on my cast-iron grill pan then serve with cumin-chickpeas and avocado (recipe coming soon). That idea was based on an old Food & Wine recipe from 2005. I’ve been making it for years and have a couple variations scratched out on my old recipe.
I just wasn’t in the mood for that this week (although now that I’m looking at my notes I’m re-inspired!) but I wanted to use the tuna because it was fresh and I felt like it was a crime to throw it in the freezer.
Like I said, if you can boil water you can steam tuna. You need a steamer basket that fits over a saucepan. Water, wine, lemon, couple spices, bay leaf. Done. No steamer basket? You can throw the tuna directly into the water/wine mixture. Now you’re poaching instead of steaming.
Truth is, you don’t need any of the fancy spices either. Water and wine will do it. No wine? Use lemon juice.
While your tuna is steaming, you can prep the rest of the salad ingredients. For me, there must be finely chopped red onion and celery. I use real mayonnaise because I just don’t get the same satisfaction from using yogurt or a mayo-yogurt combo. Call me old fashioned. I’d rather get my tang from real lemon juice.
The secret ingredients that make this tuna salad taste like it was right from a seafood deli are white pepper and celery seed. I had never heard of either until my experience in that deli and I’ve never made tuna salad without them since. I did a Google search recently looking for other tuna salad recipes using these ingredients. Haven’t found one yet.
White pepper is simply ground white peppercorns. Celery seed is seed from celery. Nothing magical until you mix them with mayo, lemon juice and tuna fish. The white pepper has a heat to it. A distinctly elegant but bold pepper flavor that I find works very well with seafood vs. black pepper. I also use white pepper in my Dijon and Dill Egg Salad recipe.
To make the perfect tuna salad, let the steamed tuna cool to room temperature. Use your hands to break it down into chunks. Add your mayo, celery, red onion, white pepper and celery seed. Using a fork, work the ingredients together until the tuna is broken down into shreds. Squeeze a generous amount of lemon juice on. Season to taste, parsley if you’ve got it.
The absolute key to perfect tuna salad is to chill it overnight before eating. Two hours isn’t enough to let the flavors meld. Check it the next day, add mayo and lemon juice if needed to moisten it up. It’s worth the wait!
Steam The Tuna
- 3/4 cup water
- 1/2 cup white wine
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 pinches mustard seeds
- 1 tsp peppercorns (sub 1/4 tsp ground pepper)
- 1 lemon, divided
- 8 oz yellowfin tuna
- 1/2 mayonnaise
- 1/2 shallot, minced (sub red onion)
- 1/4 cup celery, finely diced
- 1/2 tsp white pepper
- 1/2 tsp celery seed
- 1 lemon
- salt and pepper
- 1/4 cup parsley, chopped (optional)
- Put water, wine and spices in a saucepan that has a steamer basket. Cut the ends of each side of a lemon and add to water. Set saucepan over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Set steamer basket on top and place tuna inside. Cover, and steam over simmering water for about 7 minutes, turning tuna once, until tuna is cooked all the way through. Flake with a fork to check that all pink is gone. Remove from heat, set tuna aside to cool. Discard water and spices.
- Flake the tuna by hand into a medium mixing bowl. Add mayo, shallot, celery, white pepper, celery seed. Work the ingredients together with a fork until all tuna is shredded and well combined. Squeeze half a lemon over and season with salt and pepper. Refrigerate for at least 12 hours. Check seasoning before serving adding lemon juice and a touch more mayo if needed. Option to add chopped parsley.