How to make tuna salad fancy with sauces and toppings

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Tuna salad doesn’t have to be boring. Spending a few more minutes preparing toppings, you can make delicious tuna salad that’s quick and easy. Get ideas on how to spruce up your go-to tuna salad recipe.

Lettuce cups with tuna saladPin

Tuna salad is so common in the U.S. that it’s at risk of being a boring recipe. Add some mayonnaise, salt, pepper, and maybe chopped onions to canned tuna if you can be bothered. It’s almost made as an afterthought.

Yet, tuna salad is a new recipe to me as it’s an atypical dish to find in a New Zealand home. With fresh eyes, I noticed there are so many opportunities to take tuna salad to the next level. 

This week, I got experimenting and tried many different variations of tuna salad. I’m sharing my ideas with you on how to enjoy this easy and versatile dish (that requires no cooking!). 

What kind of tuna is best?

I like using canned tuna (or tuna that comes in a plastic pouch) for tuna salad because it’s convenient. It’s already cooked and ready to use.

You can get tuna packed in oil or water (water is usually more common).

If you’re fancy, you could use a tuna steak. Though, it seems like a bit of a waste to use a tuna steak for tuna salad, so I’d recommend using leftover tuna if you’re cooking it from scratch.

NOTE: Of greater concern to me is what species of tuna is best. With pregnancy, I’m optimizing for tuna that’s low in mercury and higher in omega-3 fatty acids (for brain health).

That leads to light tuna as the best choice. Sometimes light tuna is labeled as “chunk light”, “Skipjack tuna”, or “Yellowfin tuna” (these 2 species of tuna are commonly used as light tuna).

According to the FDA, albacore or “white” tuna is higher in mercury than light tuna. The FDA recommends eating up to 6 ounces / 170 g per week (which is one typical serving and therefore not very much tuna).

Of course, if you have no immediate pregnancy concerns and you’re not a young child, you may not need to be as cautious about mercury.

TIP: Check out this table from Healthline for the amount of mercury in tuna. 

Tuna salad building blocks

The basic tuna salad is made by mixing cooked tuna chunks and mayonnaise with salt and pepper. Maybe a squeeze of lemon juice. That’s it.

Everything else you add is designed to make tuna salad fancy. And my goodness, are there many options for sprucing up tuna salad. 

With the essential foundation, here are common ways you can customize your tuna salad for variety and to satisfy any cravings you may have. 

NOTE: I’m basing the following suggestions on the Salad Building Blocks section of my article on How to Assemble a Salad.

  • Base: Use a leafy vegetable (lettuce, arugula, baby spinach, etc.) to serve as the base for your tuna salad. You could also use grains (quinoa, rice, couscous, etc.), crackers, toasted bread, or any other heftier carb as the base. 
  • Body: Of course, use tuna. In addition, you can consider filling fats and proteins to transform your tuna salad into a hearty complete meal. For example, avocado chunks, garbanzo beans / chickpeas, and even eggs would work in your tuna salad. 
  • Neck (Dressing): The traditional dressing uses mayonnaise. Along with mayo, you can add Dijon mustard, lemon juice, finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, hot sauce, dill relish, and any other preferred condiments to create an appetizing dressing. (Check out this recipe for spicy mayo.)
  • Topping: This is where you get creative. You can make your tuna salad spicy, crunchy, herbaceous, or even sweet. 

No mayonnaise? You can substitute the same quantity of Greek yogurt, sour cream, cottage cheese, crème fraîche, or cream cheese. Or vegan mayo if you don’t eat regular mayonnaise because of the animal products (namely eggs). 

TIP: You may need to add extra liquid, such as additional lemon juice, to thin out the thicker dairy products like cream cheese. 

You could even experiment with a non-mayo and non-dairy tuna salad using olive oil as the base. I haven’t tried this yet but it would probably end up tasting more like an olive oil-based pasta salad. Leave a comment below if you’ve got a good recipe.

Here are 2 variations on tuna salad I’ve been digging.

2 plates of tuna salad with different flavors side-by-sidePin

Spicy tuna salad

  • Finely diced green onion
  • Chopped walnuts
  • 1 teaspoon of sriracha sauce 
  • Shredded basil and cheese

This spicy tuna salad reminds me of spicy tuna sushi. I bet you could roll it in rice and seaweed and get a poor man’s version of spicy tuna sushi.

Cucumber and carrot tuna salad

  • Finely minced onion
  • Small diced cucumber
  • Small diced carrot

I like how crunchy this fiber-packed tuna salad is.

How to serve tuna salad

There are a bunch of ways to serve tuna salad whether you’re looking for a quick snack or dinner.

My favorite way: Serve the tuna salad in lettuce wraps and cups. 

Tuna salad with leafy greens: Place the tuna salad on a bed of washed and chopped lettuce, baby spinach, or arugula. 

Tuna salad with crackers: I like to use smaller crackers as scoops treating the tuna salad like a dip. Rice crackers, Ritz crackers, and even corn chips make great scoopers. 

Tuna salad sandwich: You can spread the tuna salad over toasted sandwich bread, croissant, bagel, brioche, or pita. Add a slice of cheese and you’ve got a tuna melt. 

Tuna salad wrap, tacos, quesadilla: Use tuna salad as a filling for wraps and tacos. Topping with cheese, chopped cilantro, and a squeeze of lime are ideas for sprucing up your wrap before serving. 

Tuna salad with pasta: You could serve a scoop of tuna salad over freshly cooked pasta for a hot dish or toss tuna salad in cooked noodles rinse with cold water for a cold dish. 

Tuna salad with egg (inspired by a salade niçoise): For extra protein, serve your tuna salad with a soft-boiled or hard-boiled egg and blanched green beans. 

NOTE: According to Wikipedia, serving tuna salad in pitted peach halves is a common dish in Belgium. It’s called pêches au thon. Wow, sounds like an exotic combination to try. 

Tips for success

  • How to avoid tuna salad that’s too runny: Soggy tuna salad can look unappetizing. It doesn’t impact the flavor much except for potentially diluting the dressing. Here are ways to reduce weeping tuna salad. 
    • Drain the tuna with a strainer. The first time I made tuna salad, I was lazy. I opened a slit in the can and poured out as much water as possible. But the tuna salad ended up runny. Now I strain the tuna in a property strainer first thing and allow it to drain while I’m preparing the dressing and toppings.
    • Beware when adding vegetables that release a lot of water, such as cucumbers and tomatoes. They can lead to a runny tuna salad. It’s best to add these chopped veggies just before serving if possible.
  • Scale the recipe: My preferred ratio has been 4 ounces / 113 g of tuna to 3 tablespoons of mayonnaise. If you decide to double, triple, or quadruple the recipe, you can easily scale it up by also scaling up the quantity of dressing and toppings. 

Easy tuna salad with minced onions and carrots

Print Recipe Pin Recipe Rate Recipe
This tuna salad recipe serves as a flavorful base for your creative toppings and serving ideas. Enjoy it as a quick snack with crackers or add leafy greens and hearty toppings, such as avocado, boiled eggs, and cheese for a complete meal.
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cook Time: 0 minutes
Total Time: 5 minutes
Course: Salad, Side Dish
Cuisine: American
Keyword: 10 ingredients or less, 5-minute recipe, gluten-free, no-cook, salad, summer
Servings: 2 people
Calories: 445kcal
Author: Anna Rider
Cost: $4


  • Chopping Board
  • Knife
  • Mixing Bowl
  • Spatula
  • salad spinner


  • 8 oz. (230 g) tuna, canned

Salad dressing

  • 6 tablespoons (85 g) mayonnaise, use as much as desired
  • 1 small Lemon, juice from half a lemon
  • ½ teaspoon (3 g) Salt
  • ½ teaspoon (2 g) Black pepper, freshly ground


  • 1 tablespoon onion, red onion or shallot is ideal
  • 1 sprig green onion, use as much as desired
  • 1 small carrot, optional
  • 1 tablespoon sriracha sauce, or another hot sauce, optional
  • 1 tablespoon cheese, grated


  • Gather the ingredients.
    Ingredients for making tuna saladPin
  • Drain the tuna. Leave the tuna in the strainer to collect as much excess water as possible.
  • Zest the lemon. Cut the lemon in half. Juice one half of the lemon. Reserve the zest and juice for the dressing.
  • Finely dice the red onion, green onion, and carrot.
  • Mix the drained tuna, mayonnaise, lemon juice, lemon zest, salt, pepper, onion, half of the green onion, carrot, and (if using) hot sauce in a bowl until well combined. The tuna salad is ready.
  • Enjoy your tuna salad!
    A collage of 6 images showing how to prepare tuna saladPin


Calories: 445kcal | Carbohydrates: 9g | Protein: 25g | Fat: 35g | Saturated Fat: 7g | Polyunsaturated Fat: 19g | Monounsaturated Fat: 8g | Trans Fat: 1g | Cholesterol: 66mg | Sodium: 1366mg | Potassium: 413mg | Fiber: 3g | Sugar: 4g | Vitamin A: 4429IU | Vitamin C: 36mg | Calcium: 108mg | Iron: 3mg
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Can you make this in advance?

Yes! The salad might weep if you put in vegetables that release a lot of water (especially cucumber) and leave the salad for a day or two.

TIP: If you plan to make it in advance, stick to only adding aromatics (onion, garlic, or shallot), herbs, nuts, and sauces/condiments (pickle relish, hot sauce) to spruce up the tuna salad. 

How to store leftovers?

Put the leftover tuna salad in an airtight container and store it in the fridge.

Bringing to picnics? Transport the tuna salad in an airtight container with ice packs to keep it cool.

Can you freeze it? 

Yes, you can freeze tuna salad but it might not hold its texture upon defrosting.

Freezing causes vegetables to change texture and become softer. So you may want to skip adding vegetables to tuna salad that you freeze.

WARNING: The biggest risk is that the mayonnaise might separate. You might find the dressing is more watery after thawing the frozen tuna salad. 

Make sure to freeze it in an airtight container and consume within 3 months. Defrost overnight in the fridge. 

What to drink with tuna salad

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5-Minute Homemade Lemonade Infusions
Make lemonade from scratch! Even better, make your simple syrup from scratch and infuse it with herbs and flowers to give the lemonade a zing.
Get the Recipe
Must-try Fruit Smoothie with Silken Tofu and Peanut Butter
This vegan smoothie recipe uses silken tofu instead of dairy for a delicious, high-protein breakfast or snack. Substitute with your favorite fruits and top with roasted nuts for extra richness.
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Anna looking down chopping vegetables
About Anna Rider

Hi! I'm Anna, a food writer who documents kitchen experiments on with the help of my physicist and taste-testing husband, Alex. I have an insatiable appetite for noodles 🍜 and believe in "improv cooking".

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