On canned tuna and tuna salad

Canned fish is an odd thing in general, a relic of a previous era when there was no practical way of transporting highly perishable foods over long distances, so it had to be preserved (by drying, salting, or smoking) or canned just to get to market at all. Tuna salad, as we know it today, is one of the few home-prepared foods the main ingredient of which can only be canned. But there are a lot of varieties of canned tuna, and many different ways of preparing tuna salad. What I present here is the “tuna salad snob’s” way of making it.

Foodservice tuna salad is nearly always disappointing: pasty at best, soupy at worst, with finely ground tuna and vegetables, usually with an overly-sweet dressing reminiscent of Miracle Whip. (Full disclosure: when I was little, the only way I would eat tuna salad or indeed cold-cut sandwiches was with Miracle Whip, on squishy Fassetts “Italian Sourdough” bread. I got over it.) Some varieties add herbs, but very few have a pleasing texture. Even at Whole Foods, the tuna salad often sits around, both in pre-pack containers and in the display case, until it exudes an unappetizing brown liquid. (I also have been unable to get Whole Foods to tell me where their tuna is sourced from, which leads me to believe it comes from the same Thai and Vietnamese factory ships as the “industry leaders”.)

Homemade tuna salad is not without its pitfalls, either. For a start, the FDA “standards of fill” for the standard tuna can (nominally six ounces) do not require that it actually contain six ounces of tuna, even when labeled “6 oz.” Most commercial “solid white albacore” canners put only a small chunk of pre-cooked tuna into their cans, and fill out the rest with a glutamate broth (listed as “hydrolyzed vegetable protein” on the ingredients list but often “spring water” on the principal panel of the label) and a mush of processing-line scraps. These commercial varieties are cooked twice: once as a whole fish, which makes it easier to separate the loins from the skeleton of the tuna, and then again after canning to kill any bacteria that made it through the processing line. The manufacturers of these products have engaged in a systematic, lock-step reduction in the label weight of the tuna as well: the 6-ounce can of my youth now holds barely more than 5 ounces. (The FDA standard of fill only requires a bit more than 3 ounces solid matter in a 6-ounce can, but the requirements for label weight are different.)

For a long time I despaired of ever getting decent tuna salad again: the cans I could buy had barely enough tuna for 1 1/2 sandwiches’ worth, and the prepared tuna in the deli case was disgustingly wet and pasty. (I always suspected that they were preparing it in a commercial food processor, which must be much cheaper than flaking the tuna by hand.) But about five years ago or so, it became possible to buy canned tuna that was only cooked once, in six-ounce cans that actually contained nothing but a single six-ounce tuna loin section, no added water or glutamate. I buy “American Tuna” brand tuna now, which is line-caught by U.S.-registered boats and landed and canned at U.S. ports. It’s fairly pricey compared to the stuff from Thailand — $5 to $6 a can — but when you consider that one can makes two or even three sandwiches, rather than one-and-change, it seems like a good deal to me, particularly when you also take into account the reduced frustration. There are other brands available now, and even the “big three” tuna brands are getting into the act with various “premium” cooked-only-once offerings (which I haven’t sampled, but the folks at the Test Kitchen did).

So here’s my recipe for tuna salad:

  • 1 6-oz can American Tuna or similar solid white albacore (salted or unsalted according to preference)
  • 2 tbl mayonnaise (I prefer Delouis Fils, from France; sometimes I use their aioli instead)
  • 1/2 yellow onion, chopped fine
  • 1/2 celery stalk, chopped fine

Empty the entire can, liquid and all, into a high-sided flat-bottomed container (I have an old Glad brand reusable plastic container that I use for this). Using a fork, flake the tuna until only small pieces remain. All of the remaining liquid should be absorbed by the tuna flakes. Add chopped onion and celery, and stir until well combined. Then add 1 tbl mayonnaise and stir; if the mixture still seems a bit too dry, add the rest of the mayonnaise. The completed tuna salad should have enough mayonnaise to form a cohesive mass, but show not leak any liquid when pressed with a fork. Makes 2 servings.


Nutrition Facts
Serving size: 1/2 recipe (3 oz. cooked tuna)
Servings per container: 2
Amount per serving
Calories 274 Calories from fat 176
% Daily Value
Total Fat 20g 30%
 Saturated Fat 3.5g 18%
 Monounsaturated Fat 0g
Trans Fat 0g
Cholesterol 35mg 12%
Sodium 400mg 17%
Potassium 73mg 2%
Total Carbohydrate 3.5g 1%
 Dietary fiber <1g
 Sugars 1.5g
Proteins 20g 40%
Vitamin A 1%
Vitamin C 4%
Calcium 1%
Iron 0%
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