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Years ago, my dad took a trip to Bermuda, where he picked up a peculiar and surprisingly good tuna salad innovation: adding Worcestershire sauce to it. This was long before anyone was talking about umami, and our awareness of which ingredients were "umami bombs" was nonexistent. We were completely perplexed about why Worcestershire-spiked tuna salad tasted so good, but it did, so we added it ever after.
Today, there's no mystery at all. We know that Worcestershire sauce is part of a family of glutamate-rich foods, many of them fermented and aged, that boost the savory flavor of whatever they're added to. Now we frequently reach for these flavor boosters, whether Worcestershire, soy sauce, Parmesan cheese, or fish sauce, to enhance a wide variety of dishes. Oftentimes we're using them in tiny enough quantities that we get a subtle improvement in the overall dish without it being obvious what the source is, such as when we add a splash of Asian fish sauce to Bolognese or French onion soup.
This knowledge of umami has also led me to shift away from Worcestershire sauce in my tuna salad, since Worcestershire has an assertive and distinct enough flavor that you can always kind of tell it's there. My preference instead is fish sauce or very finely minced anchovy, both of which have a fishy flavor that disappears into the tuna mix without a trace, save for a satisfyingly savory punch in the mouth. It's probably the biggest trick I have up my sleeve for improving a classic without diverging too far from what most people expect.
Still, I have a couple of other thoughts beyond the umami booster on how to make better tuna salad—including how to do it without mayo, since I know there's a small faction of incredibly bizarre people out there (my wife included) who for some reason can't stand the stuff. Read on for more of my observations below.
First, Let's Talk Tuna
When I was a kid, tuna came in cans sold by a small number of very big companies, and it was inexpensive. Today, those cans remain, but they're joined by much pricier options, some imported and some domestic, some in jars and some in cans or tins, almost all packed in olive oil. The quality of some of these fancier tuna products is significantly higher than that of the mass-market stuff, but I wanted to find out just how important the difference is in tuna salad.
I bought just about every brand I could find of oil-packed tuna, along with a couple of water-packed samples, then whipped up tuna salad (both with and without mayo) using each kind.
Here's the good news: For a classic mayo-dressed tuna salad, it really doesn't matter what kind of tuna you use, since the quality differences are entirely covered up by the mayo and seasonings. Oil-packed gives you a slight texture advantage, but even water-packed works.
Here's the bad news: If you want a really good mayo-free tuna salad, shelling out for fancy oil-packed tuna can make a much bigger difference. Price alone, though, isn't the best gauge. See, the main problem with canned and jarred tuna is dryness. Most of the meat that comes from tuna is very lean, and the high heat of the canning process can severely dry it out. This is often the case with higher-end tuna as well. Oil-packed fish is usually better than water-packed, since the oil helps coat the dry fish protein and make it seem moister. Even more helpful is to invest in a fattier cut of tuna, most often sold by Spanish companies under the name ventresca, which comes from the much fattier belly (think of the difference between regular lean akami sashimi and fatty toro). I like the ventresca from both Ortiz and Tonnino. Make no mistake, though; this stuff isn't cheap.
Classic Mayo-Dressed Tuna Salad Sandwiches
As I mentioned above, the quality of the tuna in the classic mayo-dressed version isn't so important, since the mayo more than makes up for whatever deficiencies and dryness the tuna might suffer.
Guess what else I don't think is very important? The mayo. It wouldn't be unfair to expect a food snob like me to go on at length about how superior homemade mayo is to the store-bought stuff (especially when it's so easy to make) and why it's essential to good tuna salad. It wouldn't be unfair, but it would be wrong. Homemade mayo is, in many instances, the superior product, but in a classic tuna salad, store-bought mayo more than holds its own, adding an undeniable creaminess to the salad and delivering the kind of flavor most of us have come to expect. If you want to add homemade mayo, go for it, but don't feel like you're making any sacrifices spooning from a jar into your mixing bowl. It'll taste great.
Here's what I do think is important:
Dice your vegetables: There are a few ways to cut the celery and onion—my vegetables of choice—in a tuna salad. You can slice them or dice them, and you can go for big pieces or teensy-tiny ones. In a classic tuna salad, though, I want them diced about a quarter inch thick: small enough to blend into the mix, but large enough to provide noticeable pops of texture in each bite.
Rapid-pickle your onion: I'm not a huge fan of raw onion, so I almost always like to tame its pungency one way or another. One of my favorite ways is to soak the onion in vinegar for several minutes, which cuts its intensity while giving it a bright, lightly pickled flavor. It's a great trick that's so fast and easy, I don't even consider it "quick" pickling; it's rapid pickling. Give it 10 to 15 minutes in the vinegar, then drain, and you're good to go. The effect is not unlike a bit of relish in the salad, but without the sweetness.
Mix the tuna extremely well: Canned tuna is generally dry, so if you leave the flakes of fish too big, what you'll get are chalky bits coated in mayo...not good. Take the time to mix the tuna with the mayo very, very thoroughly, breaking up the fish into the smallest possible pieces. You'll lose any trace of the dryness that the fish originally had.
Add the umami: Whether using fish sauce or minced anchovy (or, heck, even Worcestershire), you'll want some kind of umami booster in there to round out and improve the overall flavor. Don't worry, it'll be subtle.
Toast the bread: This one I'm less militant about, but I think the best contrast to such a moist sandwich filling is lightly toasted sandwich bread. I'm half open to the counterargument about the pleasures of squishy-sweet bread surrounding the tuna salad—I get a little nostalgic about that, too—but ultimately, the sogginess-resistance of lightly toasted tender bread gets my vote.
Mediterranean-Style Mayo-Free Tuna Salad
Some folks just don't like mayo. I can't pretend to understand them, but I know they exist, and I respect how frustrating it can be to avoid mayo given how ubiquitous the sauce is, especially in classic American salads like tuna. When I'm going mayo-free, I like to take a Mediterranean approach to the dish, tossing the tuna with a generous amount of good olive oil, briny capers, olives, and vegetables like celery, fennel, and red onion.
Following my discussion above about what kind of tuna to use, this is a case where you really will get the best results with a higher-quality canned or jarred oil-packed tuna, especially ventresca, which is the fattier belly cut. You may wonder whether you can get away with a lesser canned tuna, shredding it as finely as possible, as in the mayo version above, then bathing the whole thing in olive oil to moisten it up. I'd discourage that here, since you'll end up dumping a ton of extra oil into the dish to compensate for the dry tuna, and, unlike mayo, that much oil will become overwhelmingly greasy and heavy. This is a dish for which you're much better off using the moister ventresca tuna and not breaking down the fish into tiny shreds.
Instead, I like to flake the fish with my fingers into roughly half-inch chunks, though there's no need for any kind of exactness here.
Then, because the fish flakes are bigger, I also cut my vegetables bigger, slicing the celery, onion, and fennel into strips. I still rapid-pickle the onion, as above, since the tamed raw-onion flavor and the tartness are both improvements.
For the olives, you can use any pitted briny kind, green or black, cut into quarters. A squeeze of lemon juice adds a little more brightness, while parsley gives it a fresh green flavor.
And finally, once again, I add a dose of umami, in the form of either fish sauce or anchovy.
Here, I go for fully toasted slices of rustic sandwich bread, like a Pullman loaf, which I brush with olive oil to give them a crunchier bite. A little peppery arugula on the sandwich, and it's all set.
Looking back, that Worcestershire trick was one hell of an early lesson in just what a good idea it is to sneak these umami-rich ingredients into...well, just about anything.