The tuna sandwich is a lunchbox classic, but it’s not a sexy sandwich. It’s cheap, fish-based, and usually involves a fair amount of mayo, but when you get the craving, nothing else will do. All you technically need to make a tuna sandwich is tuna, mayo, and white bread, but it’s also a sandwich that takes well to edits and additions. Here are our favourite ways to make a better tuna sandwich.
Make your own tuna confit
Tuna is the most important ingredient in this particular sandwich, and while you can make a decent one with water-packed canned tuna and a healthy amount of mayo, you can make a transcendent one with this sous-vide tuna confit , very little mayo, and lots of fresh herbs. Besides an immersion circulator, all you need is a tuna steak, olive oil, and salt.
Use tuna that’s packed in oil (and save the oil)
If you don’t have an immersion circulator, or simply aren’t interested in breaking it out in pursuit of a better tuna sandwich, you can always outsource the oil-packing and grab a can of fancy oil-packed tuna. Not only does tuna that’s been packed in olive oil feel more luxurious, it tastes better, as the water-soluble flavour compounds don’t leach out into the oil the way they do in water.
Buying oil-packed tuna can definitely jack up the cost of your sandwich, but the oil itself is almost worth the price of admission. Though it has a slight fish flavour, it reads more as rich, meaty, and umami-packed, rather than outright fishy. It fries an incredible egg, and it is my favourite oil for caramelizing onions. (If you need brand suggestions, Bon Appetit has quite a few, but I’m currently obsessed with this smoked albacore from Fishwife.
Upgrade your bread
While I respect that some people prefer to eat their tuna on a seeded whole grain or sourdough, I don’t understand it. I won’t make a tuna sandwich on anything other than squishy white bread, and Japanese milk bread is white bread’s ultimate form. It’s sweet and plush — almost cloud-like — and available for purchase in almost any Asian market (look for the white bread labelled “shokupan”). If you don’t live near an Asian market, don’t fret; you can make it yourself.
Choose the right mayonnaise
Mayonnaise is a personal thing. Some people like a reasonable amount, some people like just enough to hold the tuna salad together, and some people like it Subway-style (50% mayo by mass). If you don’t want to shell out the cash for fancy tuna, an easy, cheap way to upgrade your sandwich is by using better mayo. Kewpie is my favourite tuna salad dressing; it’s rich and creamy (thanks to the use of egg yolks only) and sweet and savoury (thanks to the sugar and MSG). If I want something a little fluffier and tangier, I’ll reach for Duke’s, which is made with whole eggs, but without any sugar.
If you want to get truly bespoke, you can make your own. Cheese mayo would overwhelm the fish, but duck fat mayo or bacon mayo can add a little bit of fatty luxury, especially if you’re working with mediocre canned fish. (If you don’t feel like starting from scratch, you can always perk up some store-bought mayo with add-ins and extras.)
Don’t forget the acid
Meat (even fish meat), fat, and bread can get a little claggy and muddied, which is why it’s so important to bring a little acid into your tuna salad. Sour relish or chopped pickles help, but adding a splash of lemon juice, pickle brine, or your favourite vinegar ensures the tang is distributed evenly throughout the salad. If you’re worried about things getting soupy due to too much liquid, you can always add a pinch of citric acid (sour MSG).
De-string your celery
A lot of people add celery to their tuna for texture. It is, sadly, the only vegetable I cannot stand, but I get why people want it in there. But even the people who enjoy celery begrudge its stringy bits, which can get stuck in your teeth and distract from your sandwich. Luckily, they are easy to remove: Just run a y-shaped peeler down the outside of the celery until it’s all unstrung. Chop and add to your tuna as usual.
Amplify the umami
One of the biggest drawbacks to using water-packed tuna is that it just doesn’t taste like much. Umami seems to be the first flavour that seeps out into the water, but that flavour is easily replaced (or enhanced). Depending on the type of umami you prefer, you can up the savouriness of your tuna salad with fish sauce, anchovies (blend one into the mayo), shrimp paste, bonito flakes, grated dried mushrooms, Caesar dressing, or pure MSG. No matter which ingredient you choose, add a little bit at a time, and stir and taste after each addition.
Get eggs involved
Purists will say that eggs have no place in tuna salad, but I don’t believe in such pedantry. Adding a chopped miso-cured or soy-sauce-marinated egg adds richness without extra mayo and — say it with me now — an impressive amount of umami. I’m also quite partial to grating cured egg yolks on my sandwich, which add a deep and salty, almost cheesy flavour.
Add some sushi ginger
Sushi ginger is just as at home in tuna salad as it is alongside a tuna roll. It’s sweet, tart, and a tad warming, and delightful when chopped up into tiny bits and mixed into tuna salad. (You can also just splash in some of the brine if you’re feeling lazy.)
Tuna salad is, unfortunately, mush, and mush needs textural counterpoints. Celery is the most common source of texture in deli salads, but there are other, more interesting ways to add some crunch.
My favourite is diced apples. They’re crisp, tart, and sweet — everything that tuna salad isn’t and everything it needs. I’m also a big fan of layering a plank of iceberg on my tuna sandwich for a cool, lightly sweet crunch, or mixing in diced scallions or shallots if I’m craving something a little pungent.
Don’t be afraid to get a little weird with it. One of my favourite tuna sandwich toppings is a layer of Doritos (nacho, please) or, if I’m out of those, salt and vinegar potato chips. (Plain also works, but the tang from salt and vinegar makes it special.)
Incorporate fresh herbs
Tuna sandwiches aren’t the only dish that benefits from a smattering of fresh herbs, but they might benefit more than most. Dill, lemon verbena, marjoram, chervil, thyme, and even humble flat leaf parsley all bring flavour and freshness to the deli salad, turning even the most ho-hum, mayo-heavy tuna into something nuanced and intentional tasting.
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