Recipe Review

I Tried 4 Popular Tuna Salad Recipes and the Winner Has a Sweet Surprise

published Mar 4, 2022
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Post Image
Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk; Headshot: Getty Images

If I could go back in time and tell my elementary-school self one thing, it would be to ignore the haters at the cafeteria who said that my tuna salad sandwich smelled bad because one day, I’d have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to try four famous recipes, side by side, and rave about them on the internet. I have always loved tuna salad, although I did at one point have to ask my mom to stop packing it for my lunch because I was embarrassed to take it out of my lunch box around the other kids.

Not anymore. Today I am a loud and proud lover of tuna salad, and I am here to answer the age-old question: What is the best tuna salad recipe? Like any recipe, there is some degree of personal preference here. My perfect tuna salad should be rich, acidic, herby, crunchy, and slightly vegetal. I don’t want a dry tuna salad. It should be creamy enough that I can spread it across a slice of bread, but not so moist that it’s oil-slicked or ridden with mayo. I also want it to have some crunch, but not so stuffed with mix-ins that it becomes a nuisance to eat.

Ultimately, your perfect tuna salad may look and taste a little different than mine. That said, I learned a ton about different kinds of canned tuna, whether to drain or not to drain the tuna, which mayo to use, and which vegetables to mix in. It was hard to pick a winner because there were ingredients that I appreciated in each tuna salad, and frankly, I want to borrow something from each salad and combine all of that together to create my own perfect tuna salad.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Meet Our 4 Tuna Salad Contenders

When choosing the four recipes, I wanted to see what pops up at the top of a Google search, as well as what some of our favorite food celebrities and bloggers are claiming as their go-to tuna salad. As far as method goes, all tuna salads are pretty much the same: You put all your ingredients in a bowl, then mix them up. Because there wasn’t too much variation in the method, I wanted to make sure that the ingredient lists on each of these tuna salads looked vastly different. Here are the salads that I chose.

Food Network: This recipe is not only one of the top results on Google for “tuna salad recipe,” but it also boasts a 5-star rating and nearly 130 reviews. Upon first glance, the ingredient list reads super classic. No nonsense — just a classic deli-style tuna salad. I wanted something basic and traditional to compare with other more untraditional versions.

Martha Stewart: This recipe is pretty on par with the classic tuna salad ingredient list, but it also added chopped apples and fresh basil, which are two ingredients that I’ve never used in a tuna salad. Chopped apples? And canned fish? I’ll be the judge of that, Martha.

Smitten Kitchen: This was a bit of a wildcard in the sense that this recipe was tacked onto another old recipe on her site and was sourced from a 2004 New York Times recipe. The ingredient list was by far the most non-traditional, calling for pepperoncini peppers, smoked almonds, dill, balsamic vinegar, 2 kinds of mustards, and no mayo. Would all of those mix-ins make the mayo unnecessary? There was only one way to find out.

i am a food blog: Given that you cannot have a conversation about tuna salad without discussing mayonnaise, I wanted to try a recipe that specifically called for Kewpie, the Japanese mayonnaise that’s made with egg yolks (as opposed to whole eggs) and seasoned with rice vinegar. This condiment is known for being creamier and richer than other mayonnaise brands, so I was curious to see how it held up in a tuna salad. This recipe also calls for miso and suggests serving with seaweed, all of which make me super curious to give this recipe a try.

How I Tested the Tuna Salads

I made all of the tuna salads in one day and enjoyed them over the next couple of days. I enjoyed them straight-up, and also tried them with crackers and on toast, although I did not factor in the way that I served them in my final evaluation. I was solely looking at the salads themselves. I used oil-packed and water-packed tuna, depending on what the recipe called for.

After I made all four salads, I didn’t feel like there was a resounding winner, because I liked and disliked components of all of them. I determined the winner based on the salad that I found myself most excited to return to in the following days.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

1. The Best If You Don’t Love Mayonnaise: Smitten Kitchen

At first glance, the ingredient list on this one might seem a little unusual, but the sum of this salad is much greater than its parts. I loved the fresh dill, toasted almonds, sliced pepperoncinis, and balsamic vinegar. They were all unlikely additions, but the end result was tasty and original, nonetheless. The one thing that this salad had that none of the other salads had was heat. The subtle kick of spicy from the pepperoncinis was great, and made me wonder why more tuna salads don’t call for a couple drops of hot sauce.

My greatest qualm with this salad was the lack of mayo. Even though the salad incorporates oil from the can of tuna and/or olive oil, I was missing the rich creaminess of mayo in this salad. If you are adamantly opposed to mayo, this would be a great tuna salad for you. However, I think that most tuna salad lovers are, by nature, people who eat mayonnaise. Personally, I want mayonnaise in my tuna salad, so even though I loved some of the other components of this salad, I was too distracted by the lack of mayo.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

2. The Best for Kewpie Lovers: i am a food blog

One of the clearest takeaways from this tuna salad experiment was that Kewpie is the superior condiment. Forget classic mayonnaise, the drained oil from a can of tuna, or olive oil — the only fat that you should be adding to a tuna salad is Kewpie mayonnaise. It’s rich, creamy, and provides a subtle tang. The miso imparted another layer of umami, which I enjoyed.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

3. The Best Traditional Salad: Food Network

If you’re a fan of the classics, then this salad is for you. The ratio of tuna to condiments to vegetables was spot-on. Not too creamy, not too dry, and just the right amount of vegetal crunch. Briefly soaking the chopped red onion was a great way to mellow out its sharp flavor without losing its crispy texture. I was a little hesitant about this one because it was the only recipe to call for tuna packed in water (which is drier than tuna packed in oil), but there was plenty of mayo and mustard to add moisture to the salad, so I ended up quite enjoying it.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

4. My Tuna Salad Epiphany: Martha Stewart

Like I mentioned, I determined the ultimate winner based on the leftovers that I found myself most likely to return to, and I couldn’t get enough of Martha’s rendition. The chopped apple was a real tuna salad turning point for me. Why haven’t I been adding this all along? The crispy texture and subtle sweetness was perfect. I used some of my leftovers to make a tuna melt and the apples with the sharp cheddar cheese was absolutely divine. 

The only reason I am hesitant to proclaim this the only tuna salad is because I want to incorporate some takeaways from the other tuna salads to create the ultimate recipe. As written, this recipe needs more mayonnaise, and if it were up to me, I would swap it out for Kewpie. I also missed the almonds and pepperoncinis from the Smitten Kitchen salad, so I would want to add those as well. I also really enjoyed the soaked, minced red onion from the Food Network salad, so I would toss that in too.

Can you tell that I have a problem with editing down my food? Regardless, the chopped apple was such a mind-blowing addition, that I ultimately have to give the tuna salad crown to Martha.

Do you have a favorite tuna salad recipe? Let us know in the comments!