I spent years hunting for the elusive ingredient in my grandma’s deli tuna salad only to find it was right in front of me the whole time.
Tuna salad on a rice cake, or in a pita pocket, is my favorite go-to lunch these days. I recently made the leap from a full-time office job to freelancing from home, and I needed a quick and easy lunch that I could prepare in bulk and that would stay good for a few days — and when you see what the secret ingredient in this recipe is, you’ll see why “staying good for a few days” is absolutely no problem here.
Now, I know tuna salad is a basic dish. Tuna, mayo, maybe some onion or seasonings… no recipe required, right? Okay, yes, you’re right. But I’m a tuna salad connoisseur. My family used to make fun of me on our summer vacations because no matter where we went, I ordered tuna sandwiches. At one point, I even made an illustrated chart ranking all the tuna salads I had ordered on the trip. But I digress.
The best tuna salad I’ve ever had, by far, is the one my grandma used to pick up at the deli counter of the Foodland near her house in Pittsburgh. It was a light, pale pink, heavy on the mayo — almost creamy — but without the mayo flavor coming on too strong. It had crunchy bits of carrot and celery throughout, as well as flecks of white and yellow, hard boiled eggs chopped right into the mix.
Over the years, I’ve tried to replicate that tuna salad – somewhere, my mom has an index card on which I scrawled what I called REBECCA’S TUNA SALAD (no credit to Foodland) my very first recorded attempt at making it myself. But there was always something missing. I’d add paprika, or oregano, maybe toss in some capers or finely chop the onion instead of doing a rough dice. Maybe more salt and less pepper? No, more pepper and less salt? The end result was always kind of close — but that x-factor, that thing that brought it all together, remained a mystery.
A couple years or so ago, completely by accident, I finally figured it out. You see, usually, when I made tuna salad I ate it right away. On this magical day, however, I made more than I could eat at once. And when I went back to it the next day — that elusive flavor I’d been looking for — was there.
The secret ingredient to a great tuna salad is time.
If you knew my grandma at all, this is a particularly hilarious discovery because she was notorious for keeping things in her fridge long past the recommended best “by date.” But this tuna salad doesn’t need to “go bad” to be good — just 12-24 hours overnight in the fridge before eating will do.
What Difference Does Time Make?
I can’t explain the science behind it, exactly, but as I’ve developed this recipe what I think I’ve figured out is this: When you eat tuna salad on the same day you make it, you’re really tasting the individual components, coated in some mayo. When you let it sit overnight, the mayo and seasonings absorb into those individual components — the celery, in particular — creating a more cohesive tuna salad experience.
The best part of this discovery, by the way, is that the perfect deli tuna salad is less about the specific ingredients and ratios of those ingredients and more about the preparation — if you don’t like egg, don’t put egg in it. If you don’t want paprika or oregano or you want less mayo or more mayo, you can adjust to suit your preferences. No matter how you combine the ingredients — letting it sit in the fridge overnight before eating will yield the same cohesive result.
What Makes this Deli Tuna Salad so Practical?
Tuna salad uses such small quantities of carrots, onions, and celery that it’s almost never a good idea to buy them for the express purpose of making it. However, it is the perfect thing to make when you’ve got a spare celery stalk from a soup broth, the tail end of an onion too big to throw away, too small to be useful for an entree, a few baby carrots left at the bottom of a bag. Other than that, pretty much everything that goes into this recipe you probably already have in your fridge or pantry, and if you don’t — you can simply skip them (unless you don’t have tuna and mayo, they’re kind of non-negotiable here).
Carrots, celery, and onion are the three main components of a mirepoix, the basis of a lot of French cooking. So it’s likely that you’ll end up with the spare parts of this “holy trinity” when you’re done making some other dish.
Sometimes, when I’m chopping celery, carrots, and onion for a different recipe and I realize I’ll have some left over, I’ll chop up the extra bits right then and there and put them in a Tupperware off to the side to make tuna salad later that night.
This particular tuna salad does call for a hard boiled egg, which requires an extra bit of effort, but I usually make a batch of them to snack on during the week, so I just started adding an extra egg to the pot when I plan to make tuna salad.
Canned tuna is incredibly shelf stable so I almost always have a few cans in my pantry, and mayo I always have in my fridge, so making tuna salad has become the perfect way for me to use up leftover ingredients and reduce food waste. Plus, it’s incredibly versatile: You can eat it on bread, with salad, on crackers, or straight out of the Tupperware if you prefer.
How to hard boil and chop an egg
There’s a million and one best ways to hard boil an egg but I favor the method Nancy Silverton uses for her Genius Egg Salad which results in a perfectly cooked egg white and still slightly soft yolk.
UPDATE 2/7/20 — After many years stanning hard for Nancy Silverton’s method of hard boiled eggs, my allegiance has shifted to J. Kenji Lopez-Alt’s steaming method which produces much more consistent results.
To chop them for the egg salad, I find it easiest to use an egg slicer (which, btw, are also great for slicing strawberries and other fruits!). I slice the egg one way, then pick it up carefully so it all stays together, turn it 90 degrees and slice it again, perpendicular to the first set of slices.
The Secret Ingredient in Grammy’s Deli Tuna Salad
The perfect pale pink, creamy-yet-crunchy deli tuna salad comes together in minutes and uses ingredients you already have on hand, but needs to sit 18 hours in the fridge overnight to truly shine.
(2) 5 oz cans tuna or (1) 12 oz can)
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1 TBSP mustard (any kind)
1 hard boiled egg, peeled & chopped
1/4 cup chopped celery (1 stalk)
1/8 cup chopped carrot
1/8 cup chopped onion
Salt & pepper to taste
- Other optional ingredients
1 TBSP capers
1 TBSP minced olives (green or black)
1 tsp oregano
1/2 tsp paprika
- Open and drain tuna cans.
- Hard boil an egg (if you haven’t already) and let cool. Slice with an egg slicer in two directions (rotating 90 degrees).
- Mix all ingredients together in a bowl with an airtight lid. Taste. Adjust seasonings accordingly. You may want more mayo or less mayo, more salt and pepper or less salt and pepper. Adjust, adjust, adjust!
- Cover and let sit in the fridge overnight. Ideally 12-18 hours, but 24 if you can swing it.