13 Ways To Upgrade Canned Tuna

Some days, you're craving a classic tuna melt. Others, you're short on time for lunch prep and need a quick and satisfying option. Our answer to both is canned tuna. This budget-friendly ingredient is a pantry staple for good reason — not only because it's protein-packed and boasts an impressive shelf-life, but because its versatility lends itself to a myriad of dishes, from a classic tuna salad to more unexpected applications.


It might not be the first ingredient that comes to mind when you think of exciting lunchtime fare, but we think it's time canned tuna had its day in the sun (figuratively, of course). With a little creativity, this humble ingredient can play host to a number of flavor profiles. If you're tired of traditional tuna sandwiches, don't toss out your canned tuna just yet. A few quick swaps or additions, like simply adding a squeeze of lemon juice to your tuna salad, can take this pantry essential from tired to fresh, bright, and downright delicious.

1. Dice up some produce

Adding fresh produce to your canned tuna may seem like an obvious choice (what's a classic tuna salad without celery, after all?), but the possibilities here reach far beyond the traditional go-to options. Bringing fresh vegetables into the fold can add a ton of flavor, texture, and nutritional value to your dish.


Just about any vegetable will do, but we tend to opt for those with a little crunch. The possibilities are endless, and the best part is that you probably have a couple good pairings on hand already. Bell peppers or carrots will bring a touch of sweetness to your tuna dish. Celery or cucumber will add a bit of freshness. To bring the heat, dice up some fresh jalapeño. Add red onion, shallots, or scallions to punch up the flavor even more. If you're adding multiple vegetables (a must-do, in our book), the key is to dice them all in a similar size to ensure a satisfying crunch in every bite.

2. Add fresh herbs to the mix

Fresh herbs bring a touch of brightness to any dish, and tuna salad is no exception. Because canned tuna is so adaptable, you'd be hard-pressed to find an herb that doesn't pair well with it. When making your decision on which herbs to add, it all comes down to the flavor combinations you prefer.


If you're opting for a classic tuna salad, try adding fresh dill. This herb is known to pair well with fish of all kinds, and its slightly sweet, tangy flavor pairs perfectly with a classic tuna salad — especially if you choose to pair it with pickles. Add cilantro and chives to bring a peppery pop to your canned tuna (bonus points if you can pair it with a squeeze of fresh lime juice). Or give your dish a Mediterranean twist with fresh parsley and basil. The key to using fresh herbs in any dish is to start slow and taste as you go. Herbs with a more potent flavor, like basil or oregano, can quickly overpower a dish if used too liberally.

3. Use Greek yogurt instead of mayonnaise

Mayonnaise has a reputation as a particularly polarizing condiment: Most people either love it or hate it. If you're in the latter camp, you may have avoided canned tuna recipes altogether. While it's true that mayonnaise is often used to bring flavor, moisture, and a creamy texture to tuna salad, it's certainly not your only option. Greek yogurt makes an excellent (and delicious) substitute.


You may have seen Greek yogurt recommended as a worthy alternative to several ingredients, including sour cream and heavy cream, and as a base for dressings, sauces, and spreads. It's often touted as a healthier option thanks to its protein, calcium, and vitamin B12 content. But rest assured, this versatile ingredient is just as flavorful as it is nutrient-dense. Greek yogurt's thick, creamy texture and tangy flavor make it a perfect stand-in when used in canned tuna recipes—dare we say, even mayonnaise devotees will agree.

4. Pair with an unexpected condiment

While there's nothing wrong with mixing mayonnaise into your canned tuna, trying out different condiments can transform your dish. Whether you're looking to put an exciting twist on a classic tuna salad or create something completely new, a hint of heat or acidity can do a lot of the heavy lifting. If you're looking to mix things up, check your pantry and refrigerator. You probably have a few good options on hand.


Acids are an important component in any dish, as they work to bring balance to flavor and cut through richness. To reap the benefits of acids in your tuna dish, try a dash of red wine vinegar, a squeeze of lemon juice, or a spoonful of Dijon mustard. Because tuna is so adaptable, it's practically begging for the depth and complexity that heat can bring. To punch up your canned tuna dish with a little heat, try adding a teaspoon of harissa, a dash of chili sauce or hot sauce, or a quarter cup of diced green chiles (if you don't have fresh on hand, canned will do just fine).

5. Mix with olive oil

When shopping for canned tuna, you'll usually have the option between tuna that's been packed in oil or packed in water. There are benefits to each, but when it comes to flavor, oil-packed tuna is our first choice. Tuna that's been packed in oil boasts a more complex flavor and a richer, more succulent texture that instantly elevates a tuna dish beyond its water-packed alternative. That being said, if you're working with water-packed tuna, don't fret. There's a quick fix that can instantly elevate the ingredient.


To bring that rich, succulent texture to your water-packed tuna, simply drain the can of tuna and remove excess moisture, transfer it to a mixing bowl, and combine it with a tablespoon of oil before cooking or adding other tuna salad ingredients. When it comes to choosing an oil, we recommend following the lead of Conservas Ortiz, one of Spain's most renowned canned fish producers. Choose a high-quality, mild olive oil that works best to bring flavor and richness to your canned tuna without overpowering the fish's natural flavor.

6. Raid the pantry

If you're looking for ways to elevate canned tuna, there's a good chance you're already shopping your pantry. Since you're there already, why not take a look for other canned goods to pair it with? The possibilities may surprise you. What might appear as a humble essential or a simple backstock item could actually propel your tuna dish to greatness.


If you've got canned potatoes or canned white beans on hand, consider mixing them in with your tuna salad. Both options work as a blank slate when it comes to flavor, which means they'll play well with any ingredients you've already chosen for your tuna. If you have fresh herbs on hand, add them in to bring a dose of brightness. The result is a hearty, delicious dish that works well as a side or can easily stand on its own. Or, if you're working with a surplus of canned soup, consider adding flaked tuna as you heat it up. Minestrone, Tuscan white bean, and vegetable soups work especially well with tuna's mild fishy flavor.

7. Swap out your go-to bread

If you're looking to ramp up your standard tuna melt or tuna salad sandwich, the answer could just as easily lie in your bread choice as it does in your filling. While some might look at bread as a mere vehicle for a sandwich's ingredients, it can be so much more. A classic white bread works in a pinch, but it can tend to go limp when used with moist ingredients, and it doesn't bring much to the party in terms of flavor. Swapping it out for another option can bring welcome complexity of flavor to an otherwise average meal.


For a simple yet effective bread swap, look to rye or sourdough. Sourdough's slight tanginess pairs especially well with tuna, and rye bread's caraway seeds will bring a hint of earthiness. Both boast a robust texture that will hold up well to moist ingredients without getting soggy. If you're keen to try something a little more out-of-the-box, consider crafting your tuna melt with a crispy English muffin, toasted well with melted cheese. Or, if you're open to ditching bread altogether, enjoy the freshness and crunch that come with stuffing your tuna salad into a halved green bell pepper.

8. Blend into a creamy tonnato sauce

We know tuna can stand on its own as an entree, but its applications reach far beyond sandwiches and salads. If you find yourself reaching for canned tuna but are tired of the typical options, this is your sign to try a creamy tonnato sauce. This decadent, versatile sauce from northern Italy is famously served over fresh sliced tomatoes, but it pairs just as well with lean meats or roasted vegetables. Sticking canned tuna into a blender may feel unnatural, but don't knock it 'til you try it. Tonnato's velvety texture and tangy umami flavor will have you reaching for bite after bite.


Like so many of our favorite sauces, preparation is simple and the ingredient list is short. Canned tuna meets mayonnaise, lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, and anchovy filets, blended together until smooth and creamy. Some recipes will call for capers and Dijon mustard or herbs like parsley or basil. These are welcome additions, but not entirely necessary if you don't have them on hand. Drizzle over meat or vegetables and enjoy a punchy, savory flavor with every bite.

9. Make tuna burgers

You've tried salmon burgers — why not tuna burgers? They're hearty, protein-rich, and as easy to grill as your traditional burger. If you've shied away from making tuna burgers from scratch due to the effort involved, fear not. This delicious handheld entrée is as easy to prepare as a tuna sandwich, with the quick addition of cooking it on a grill or in a pan. A few minutes is all it takes, and those few minutes are more than worth it.


To make your burgers, drain canned tuna and combine with egg, breadcrumbs, onion, celery, mayonnaise, salt, and pepper. To pack even more flavor in, we like adding a dash of Worcestershire sauce, garlic powder, and Dijon mustard. Simply combine well in a mixing bowl, form into palm-sized patties, and refrigerate for an hour to help them keep their shape before cooking. (If you're short on time, ten or fifteen minutes in the freezer will do.) Then, cook on the grill or in a pan for three to four minutes on each side. Serve your tuna burgers up on a bun or lettuce wrap with your favorite burger toppings, like sliced onion, pickles, crisp lettuce, or sliced tomato.

10. Whip up a decadent tuna mousse

The idea of popping canned fish into a food processor might be daunting for those who've not yet ventured out of tuna melt territory, but when the result is tuna mousse, or spuma di tonno, you'll be glad you did. This smooth, savory mousse has deep roots in Italian cuisine, often served as an elegant appetizer or simple snack. It's easy to whip up at a moment's notice, and its simple ingredients come together in a tangy, umami mousse that's light, smooth, and downright delicious.


Put simply, spuma di tonno combines oil-packed tuna with dairy products and a few other flavor-boosting ingredients to create a creamy, tangy, spreadable mousse. To make it, simply drain canned tuna and pulse in a food processor to break it up a bit. Add butter, heavy cream, balsamic vinegar, soy sauce, and lemon juice, and blend until smooth. And if you're craving an umami kick, add capers and a couple anchovy filets. Enjoy with crackers or crostini at your next dinner party for an appetizer that's guaranteed to impress your guests.

11. Toss into a pasta sauce

Odds are you've tried tuna noodle casserole at least once, but this isn't the only tuna and pasta combination that deserves your attention. Thanks to their acidity, tomato-based pasta sauces provide a perfect base for canned tuna, and combining the two results in a dish that's packed to the brim with flavor. Because canned tuna is already cooked, some have the instinct to eat it in cold dishes — hence the classic tuna salad and sandwich — but canned tuna works just as well in hot entrees. One of our favorites? Pasta puttanesca.


Classic puttanesca features briny ingredients like capers and olives, making it a natural pairing for tuna. As a bonus, the entire dish can be made from pantry items, since canned tomatoes are preferred here. To make the sauce, simply cook down your canned tomatoes with olive oil and garlic until they've broken up. Add canned tuna, anchovies, olives, capers, and red pepper flakes. Serve over a long pasta, like linguine or spaghetti.

12. Try a Niçoise salad

Like so many of our favorite canned tuna dishes, Niçoise salad makes simple ingredients sing. This classic dish is hearty and filling, thanks to its protein-rich tuna and eggs, but light enough to be enjoyed under the summer sun. With roots in the Mediterranean and the south of France, this elegant salad was originally concocted to make use of ingredients that could be either stored or harvested. Luckily for those of us without a garden to harvest from, it can easily be put together with a few ingredients from your local grocery store or farmers' market.


Though most chefs and home cooks will differ at least slightly in their recommended list of ingredients, most can agree that a classic Niçoise salad should include eggs, cherry tomatoes, green beans, tuna, and a lemony vinaigrette. Though these are the mainstay ingredients, many choose to add lettuce, baby potatoes, olives, and a healthy dose of fresh ground pepper. The most important piece of preparation is to arrange the ingredients delicately — this isn't a chopped salad. Bonus points if you serve your dish al fresco in the warmer months.

13. Serve it in a sushi bowl

Sushi and sushi-inspired dishes are by far one of our favorite ways to enjoy fish. You've probably seen sushi bowls or poke bowls served with spicy tuna or fresh albacore, but if you're craving Japanese flavors and can't get your hands on the good stuff (as in, sashimi-grade fish), canned tuna makes a great stand-in.


Sushi bowls are one of our favorite ways to serve canned tuna due to their easy assembly. The key here is all in seasoning and treating the tuna before assembling your bowl to ensure maximum flavor. Start with sushi rice (leftover sushi rice works here, too) and add the toppings of your choice. We like shelled edamame, shredded carrots, sliced cucumber, jalapeño, and crumbled nori, to name a few. When it comes time to prepare your canned tuna, you've got options. Chili sauce, sriracha, and ponzu sauce are welcome additions. If that feels like a little too much heat, mix those ingredients with mayonnaise to cut through the spice and make your very own spicy mayo. Combine well with flaked tuna, assemble your ingredients in a bowl, and top with soy sauce or more spicy mayo.