12 Ingredients That Will Seriously Upgrade Your Tuna Salad

Tuna salad is standard lunchtime fare for a reason, but you don't need to stick to the classic combo of mayo and celery with your tuna to make it sing. There are loads of ways you can upgrade your tuna salad so that it tastes more like the version you get from your favorite deli. Some swear by the benefit of a bit of time, claiming that making tuna salad 12 hours to 24 hours in advance is the best way to get it to taste like a deli-style spread, seeing as the flavors have time to meld and become more cohesive. Still others say that the best way to change up your tuna salad is to invite new ingredients to the party.

When considering new ingredients to add to tuna salad, texture is just as important as flavor. The creaminess of mayonnaise and the crunch of celery in the original version can inspire you to add even more creamy or crunchy components. If you bear this in mind, the possibilities are nearly endless. Let your imagination be your guide, and you're sure to come up with even more ideas. Here are some of our favorites!

1. Start with oil-packed tuna

Many of us grew up enjoying tuna salad made from cans of tuna packed in water or perhaps brine, but using oil-packed tuna instead will truly take your tuna salad to next-level deliciousness. Tuna packed with olive oil has way more moisture than water-packed, with a slow-cooked, confit-type texture and the rich flavor of olive oil. Plus, while it's certainly higher in fat than water-packed tuna, most oil-packed tuna is of the healthy omega-3 and omega-9 variety, and what's more, you'll get more vitamin D too.

If you're using oil-packed tuna in your tuna salad, be aware that you may need to use less mayonnaise than you usually would, lest your tuna salad end up greasy. Drain off any excess olive oil and reserve it, experimenting with adding mayo and oil bit by bit until you get the consistency you want in your tuna salad. Or for a truly luscious flavor packed with brininess, use the drained oil to make your own homemade mayonnaise so you end up with a no-waste tuna salad positively brimming with flavor.

2. Sub in Greek yogurt

While mayonnaise forms the creamy base of many a tuna salad sandwich, Greek yogurt is a worthy contender to tag into the game. Not only is Greek yogurt just as delicious and creamy, with a welcome, subtle note of acidity that plays particularly well with the brininess of tuna, but it's also way healthier than mayonnaise, with 10 grams of protein per 100-gram serving. Plus Greek yogurt comes with probiotics that may support gut health, and it has a fraction of the fat.

You can use Greek yogurt as a straight-up mayonnaise substitute in your favorite tuna salad recipe no problem. But if you want to be a bit more creative with this swap, it's also fun to play up the Greek theme with the other ingredients in your salad. Consider adding some chopped Kalamata olives for brininess and swapping out the celery for the crunch of cucumber. Fresh herbs like dill or fresh oregano, used judiciously, would also be welcome.

3. Try some pickled onions

Onion adds a bright crunch and a nice pungency to tuna salad, but if you want to temper its bite slightly, the best thing you can do is to quick-pickle it. This extra step calls for marinating the sliced or chopped onion in vinegar for 10 to 15 minutes before mixing it in with the rest of your ingredients. It's time well-spent in engineering a tuna salad with balanced flavor and a touch less spiciness than most.

Not only does marinating onion in a touch of red wine vinegar diminish the most assertive bite in the onion, but it also lends a welcome note of acidity that cuts through the richness of the mayonnaise. Dissolving a bit of sugar into the vinegar will even bring a note of sweetness to the finished dish.

If you want the bite of raw onion downplayed even further, consider using a sweeter variety of onion, like white onions, or even shallots, which have a far more subtle flavor than their larger cousin.

4. Bring in some breadcrumbs

Breadcrumbs may seem like an odd addition to tuna salad, but one former deli worker swears it was one of the secret tricks that made the tuna salad so popular where she worked. On Quora, she explains that breadcrumbs soak up extra liquid in the tuna salad, meaning that you never end up with that off-putting puddle of liquid once the tuna salad is settled. In binding some of that extra liquid, breadcrumbs also make for a heftier tuna salad that's creamier than many other recipes.

Plain breadcrumbs are all you need if you want a salad where the tuna and mayonnaise do most of the talking; you can use store-bought or homemade breadcrumbs for similar results either way. If, on the other hand, you'd like to lend even more flavor to the finished salad, consider using seasoned breadcrumbs, which will subtly imbue the tuna with the flavors of herbs and spices.

5. Sprinkle in pickled capers

Most of the pungency of tuna salad usually comes from the tuna itself, or perhaps, if you're using it, from freshly chopped raw onion. But if you want to punch up the brininess a bit, why not take advantage of one of the key ingredients in the tonnato sauce that graces the veal in Italy's vitello tonnato?  Briny capers offer the perfect salty kick to your tuna salad, and their delightful texture offers a surprising pop of brightness throughout.

For your tuna salad, choose pickled capers, which have more acidity and less saltiness than the salt-packed ones. And if you want to deviate from tradition even more, take advantage of the expertise of recipe developers from The New York Times and marry the capers with lemon juice, red onion, olives, and fresh parsley. Mayo-haters will fall head-over-heels for this play on tuna salad, with its bold flavors and total eschewing of the spread that makes some balk.

6. Brighten it up with lemon

Lemon juice lends loads of brightness to tuna salad, especially one that doesn't use a creamy base. The ideal acidic counterpart to extra-virgin olive oil, lemon juice helps form a base for tuna salad that can welcomes seasonings as simple as celery and basil or as complex as red onion, olives, and sun-dried tomatoes. And even if you do love a mayo-based tuna salad, lemon juice can add a welcome brightness to that more classic base, paving the way for ingredients like sweet relish to join the party without overpowering the salad with too much sweetness. 

Either way, be sure not to neglect the lemon zest, which adds an even more intense aromatic character than lemon juice alone. Just be sure that when you're zesting your lemons that you take only the outermost yellow layer; the white pith beneath has quite a bitter flavor, which is a less-than-ideal addition to your tuna salad.

7. Go for avocado instead of mayo

Mayo haters looking to recreate classic tuna salad's creaminess should head to the produce aisle: Avocado is the perfect swap for mayonnaise in tuna salad, adding creaminess and a slight sweetness to the finished dish. To use it, simply peel the avocado and smash it until smooth. Season it, if you like, with lemon juice and salt before folding the tuna salad together as you would with mayonnaise.

Using avocado instead of mayonnaise doesn't just lessen the squick-factor for any mayo-averse diners. The superfood also ups the antioxidants, healthy monounsaturated fats, and fiber, not to mention the presence of nutrients like magnesium, potassium, and vitamin E. That said, avocado's tendency to oxidize means that an avocado-based tuna salad has an even shorter shelf life than one with mayonnaise, so be sure to stir it together at the last minute for a lovely pale green hue with no hint of brown.

8. Boost depth of flavor with soy sauce

Soy sauce might seem like a totally out-there addition to tuna salad, but if it's good enough for Jimmy John's, it's good enough for us. The sodium of soy sauce certainly seasons tuna salad, but it goes way further than just salt. Soy sauce lends a depth of flavor, a subtle sweetness, and an umami savoriness to tuna salad, really pushing it to next-level deliciousness.

Adding soy sauce is just part of the equation, however. If you really want the flavor of the sauce to mingle with the other ingredients — and, moreover, to become nearly undetectable to most diners — be sure to give it adequate time to marinate. Anywhere from three hours to overnight will impart your tuna salad with even more depth than simply adding soy sauce alone, and it's even more likely to keep guests guessing as to just how you created a tuna salad with so much flavor.

9. Whisk up some homemade mayonnaise

If you want to make your tuna salad a touch more special, consider setting aside the Hellman's and putting your whisk to work. Homemade mayonnaise is way easier to make than you'd think, and it gives you the chance to control each and every ingredient that goes into your salad.

Start things off with our fool-proof homemade mayonnaise recipe, which sees egg yolk and neutral oil whipped into a frenzy, seasoned with white wine vinegar, lemon, salt, and Dijon mustard. The egg and mustard both serve as emulsifiers, helping the sauce come together thick and rich. Once you've mastered the classic, feel free to change things up by using a more full-flavored oil, like olive oil, for part or all of the neutral oil, or by opting for an infused mustard, like one flavored with tarragon or basil. You could even add garlic to the mix and season your tuna salad with homemade aioli.

10. Jazz it up with coriander chutney

Chutney is a vast category of condiments originating in India and united by a common technique. Made by grinding fresh ingredients together, chutneys may feature a panoply of herbs, chili, fruit, coconut, and more. Some chutneys are raw; others are cooked. Some are savory; others are sweet. Some have the texture of a sauce, while others are more like a chunky jam. And for Nadia Chaudhury, the editor of Eater Austin whose family runs Kalustyan's specialty food market in that city, chutney is the perfect way to jazz up your tuna salad.

For her tuna salad, she uses coriander chutney, which typically features fresh coriander (aka cilantro) as well as green chiles, ginger, cumin, and lemon. When folded into tuna salad, it lends loads of vibrancy and a nice pop of color. You can push the flavor even more by garnishing the salad with sprigs of fresh cilantro or even freshly sliced green chiles for a bit of heat.

11. Hit the heat with pickled jalapeño juice

For a tuna salad with a bit of a kick, consider drizzling some of the juice from your jar of pickled jalapeños into the blend. This addition doesn't just cut down on food waste in your home kitchen; it also adds a welcome touch of sweetness as well as a bit of heat and acidity to the finished dish. And seeing as you're adding more liquid to the salad, you can actually cut back on the mayonnaise a touch for a salad that's just as creamy but slightly lower in calories.

If you want to add even more of a burn, not to mention some lovely texture, consider chopping either pickled or fresh jalapeños and folding them into the salad alongside the more traditional celery and onion. They'll add some crunch and pops of color in addition to the welcome heat. If you're enjoying the salad in a sandwich, you can also lay some sliced jalapeños on the bread for even more spicy flavor.

12. Mix in diced apples for sweetness

If you're a fan of sweet-and-savory combos, you'll want to use this trick favored by both Miranda Lambert and Martha Stewart. Both women love adding chopped apple to their tuna salad. Surprised? Don't be. It's actually a common addition in the South, where some even add pecans to the mix. In the case of Stewart's recipe, the apple is joined by peppery basil for even more flavor.

While it might seem odd at first, crunchy apple lends sweetness and, if you leave the skins on, a pop of color to your tuna salad. And what's more, apples can also boost the nutritional profile of your tuna salad, thanks to their richness in fiber and antioxidants. Which variety you choose is up to you: For something with a fairly pronounced pop of sweetness and a complex flavor, McIntosh apples are sweet and almost vinous. For something with a slightly more muted sweetness, the acidity of Granny Smith is more than welcome. Just be sure to chop the apple finely enough so that you have texture in every bite without overwhelming the flavor of the tuna.