Why It Works
- Briefly soaking the diced red onion in red wine vinegar tames its pungency and gives it a pop of tartness.
- Shredding the tuna finely prevents the salad from ending up with any dry bits.
- A splash of fish sauce or minced anchovy adds a subtle savory hit.
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 this mayo-free Mediterranean version, 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.
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.
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.
1 medium red onion (about 8 ounces; 225g), cut into 1/4-inch dice
1/2 cup (120ml) red wine vinegar
4 (5-ounce; 140g) cans oil-packed tuna, drained
1 cup (240ml) mayonnaise, plus more as needed
2 stalks celery (about 6 ounces; 170g total), cut into 1/4-inch dice
1 ounce (about 10 stalks) flat-leaf parsley leaves and tender stems, minced (about 1/4 packed cup)
1/2 teaspoon (3g) Asian fish sauce or very finely minced oil-packed anchovy fillets (about 2 small fillets)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
8 slices sandwich bread, very lightly toasted
Romaine lettuce leaves, torn, for garnish
In a small bowl, combine onion and vinegar (vinegar should just cover onion; add more if it does not) and let stand 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, combine tuna and mayonnaise and mix very well with a spoon until tuna is reduced to very small shreds.
Drain onion well, then add to tuna along with celery, parsley, and fish sauce or anchovy. Mix until well incorporated, then season with salt and pepper. Add more mayo, 1 tablespoon at a time, if desired.
Spoon tuna salad onto 4 bread slices, top with lettuce leaves, then close sandwiches. Serve right away.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 48g||61%|
|Saturated Fat 7g||37%|
|Total Carbohydrate 39g||14%|
|Dietary Fiber 4g||13%|
|Total Sugars 7g|
|Vitamin C 10mg||50%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|