If there’s one pantry staple that has gained an undeservedly poor reputation, it’s canned tuna. This humble protein has been pelted with notorious culinary barbs such as “dry” and “bland” and deemed worthy of consumption only during a zombie apocalypse.
But tuna is a fantastic ingredient to have on hand when you’re in a pinch or in need of a healthy alternative to day four of pasta night leftovers. In fact, not only does this miracle meat boast a whopping 40 grams of protein per can, but it’s also chock-full of essential vitamins and minerals, including vitamin D, selenium, and iodine. Additionally, tuna is low in fat and calories and is an amazing source of omega-3 fatty acids, which support many important functions for your body and brain.
The issue with tuna is that, frankly, most people just don’t make it right. When drained, it absolutely is a dry, bland, boring, and uninspiring oceanic smattering of muted pink. But with a little knowledge and creativity to give it a much-needed upgrade, you may just find yourself adding canned tuna to your weekly lunch or dinner rotation.
Read on for four quick tips to level up tuna, including our favorite Asian-inspired recipe that always hits the spot.
Editor’s note: As with every grocery store item, it’s important to read labels. When it comes to tuna, be sure to check for additives like sodium or oil that may take away from the meat’s touted health benefits. It is also advised that tuna be eaten sparingly, due to its potentially high mercury content and its impact on the environment. Always check for an MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) certification to ensure the product is sustainably sourced.
Unless your tuna comes in a pouch, chances are high that it’s preserved in water and in a can. Once water is removed from a meat that’s already dry on its own, the result is a sinewy and unappetizing protein surrounded by aluminum.
Mayonnaise is, by far, the most popular addition. But if you’re averse to the white and creamy condiment or don’t have it in your fridge, here are some other great options that add moisture and make tuna palatable:
- Oil. Olive, truffle, and even toasted sesame (which I use in my recipe below) are just a few drool-worthy examples. These oils coat the meat and bring in a subtle taste that can be tailored to your liking.
- Mustard. If tang is your thang, a sharp Dijon will mask any sort of fishiness. A standard yellow will also suffice.
- Hot sauces, vinegars, and salad dressings. Most hot sauces are vinegar-based and spicy (duh), but if you can’t handle the heat, try adding a red wine, balsamic, or apple cider vinegar for some acidity and some subtle sweetness. It’s also wise to grab your favorite salad dressing and add a splash or two into the mix for an oil and vinegar combo that delivers in both taste and familiarity.
- Hummus. It provides some additional protein, and its silky-smooth texture can practically turn tuna into a dip, which I’m always on board with.
- Greek yogurt or sour cream. The former is obviously the healthier of the two, but both of these creamy concoctions are perfect substitutes for mayonnaise that also bring in a delectable tartness.
Despite the incorporation of moisture, some people simply can’t stomach the texture of tuna. To distract from its chewy flakiness, adding a bit of crunch certainly helps. You can do this in a few ways:
- Fruits and vegetables. A crunch is optimal to balance (what should be) the creaminess of your tuna base. This can easily be accomplished with chopped onions, pickles, peppers, carrots, and even vegetables like fennel and peppery arugula. For a sweet departure, grapes and pears are wonderful choices and even pair well with veggies like celery. Also, nobody has ever turned down a mashed avocado, which brings in an extra layer of that coveted creaminess.
- Nuts and seeds. Walnuts, sunflower seeds, and pumpkin seeds are lovely and come with a bevy of health benefits.
Your spice rack will be your new best friend to liven up any canned tuna prep. Consider curries, buffalo seasonings, herb-forward Italian blends, and flavored sea salts to start. My personal favorite is to gather the most readily available Asian ingredients in my pantry and fridge to create a quick and satisfying meal that has now become a lunchtime staple.
- 1 can tuna (5 ounces), drained
- 1/4 cup mayonnaise
- 1/2 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
- 1/2 teaspoon rice vinegar
- 1/2 teaspoon soy sauce
- 1/2 teaspoon fish sauce (optional)
- 1/2 teaspoon sriracha or chili garlic sauce
- 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1 teaspoon chopped red onion
- 1/2 clove garlic, minced
- 1 teaspoon chopped scallions
- 1/2 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds
- Drain tuna and put it in a bowl.
- Add mayonnaise, sesame oil, vinegar, soy sauce, fish sauce (if using), sriracha, and ginger and mix well.
- Fold in onion and garlic.
- Top with scallions and sesame seeds.
- Feel free to use a spicy mayonnaise for an extra kick. To offset any heat, swap out soy sauce for ponzu or add lime juice to allow the citrus to cut through.
- If you want to get real fancy, top the tuna with specialty items like chili oil, kimchi, or melted cheese.
- Tuna tastes even better when it’s sweeter. Mix in a couple drops of stevia for a splash of sweetness that will balance out any excess sodium.
- Looking for more vegetables? Don’t be afraid to top this with shredded carrots, celery, or even water chestnuts.
Rather than putting the focus entirely on the meat presentation, you can try variations of the classics by rethinking some of their most vital elements (i.e., casseroles without cream soups, sandwiches with unique breads like cinnamon raisin or croissants, and salads with more interesting and trendy leaves like watercress or dandelion greens).
Making slight adjustments to the norm can completely change the flavor profile of your meal and even enhance it. Start with one thing, and then allow yourself to experiment as you become more confident in the kitchen.
If that casserole, sandwich, or salad just isn’t cutting it, canned tuna is now being used in a variety of innovative ways, like these lemon garlic tuna cakes or chipotle tuna empanadas. As long as you follow the aforementioned tips of keeping your base moist and balancing it with different textures, the possibilities really are endless.
Still not convinced? Simply pull a ’90s Jessica Simpson and pretend it’s *actual* chicken of the sea. If it takes like chicken, it’s bound to be good, right? Right.