For a dinner that comes together fast, requires minimal cooking, and makes everyone happy, look no further than Tuna Newberg.
It’s hard to put what I love about Tuna Newberg — an absolute favorite dinner of mine since before I could talk — into words that sound immediately and universally appealing. It’s my family’s ultimate go-to comfort food. It’s that one dish we all request when we’re home. My siblings and I have a running joke that Tuna Newberg is so good that if any of us were ever to appear on Chopped, we’d forgo the basket ingredients to make Tuna Newberg, and win with it every round. So what is Tuna Newberg, exactly? It’s a thick, creamy tuna sauce served warm, over rice.
My grandma made it for my mom and her brothers, my mom made it for me and my siblings, we all make it for ourselves, and now I am passing it along to all of you. You will not find this recipe anywhere else in the world. Believe me, I’ve tried.
For a while, my best guess as to where Tuna Newberg came from was that my grandma found the recipe on the back of a jar of mayo or a can of tuna. I’ve tried looking up over the years with zero luck. In writing this post, I wanted to track it down, once and for all, but again, the internet turned up nothing. Finally, my mom suggested I reach out to an old family friend, a woman named Irene, who used to help my grandma around the house. Not only did Irene remember it immediately, it turns out that it’s an original recipe that my grandma came up with — or at least, that’s what my grandma told her.
I wish I could ask my grandma where her inspiration for Tuna Newberg came from or how she developed the recipe. Unfortunately, I can’t. But what I can tell you is that it’s the much-more-affordable, easy-to-make cousin of a traditional newberg, like a Lobster Newberg or seafood newberg. My sister remembers making a traditional seafood newberg with my grandma once (her verdict: Tuna Newberg was better) so I know my grandma at least knew what a seafood newberg was and how to make one.
Like traditional newbergs, Tuna Newberg features a cream based sauce that’s thickened with flour. But, where other newbergs use butter and heavy cream, Tuna Newberg uses milk and mayo. Where traditional newbergs feature acidic flavors like sherry, cognac, Worcestershire sauce, or lemon juice, Tuna Newberg just says no to all types of acid. The final key difference: Tuna Newberg is best served over rice, while traditional newbergs are more likely to be served over long, buttery noodles.
And look, Tuna Newberg probably won’t look pretty on Instagram (good luck, future me, trying to photograph it for the blog!) and it might use more mayo than you’re used to. You probably won’t ever serve it to guests. But it’s the kind of dish you turn to when you’ve had a bad day, or you’re feeling tired, or you want to make something affordable that you can eat all week long. It’s like a warm, weighted security blanket in food form.
It’s just practical: 90% of the ingredients for Tuna Newberg are shelf-stable pantry staples (try saying that three times fast) that you probably already have on hand. Tuna Newberg is the perfect thing to make on those nights when you toss your more complicated dinner plans out the window in favor of staying in and keeping it simple.
Kids love Tuna Newberg
Tuna Newberg is a great not just for kids, but to make with kids. It’s like maybe half a step more complicated to make than Kraft Mac & Cheese. The only chopping required is a sweet onion, and the rest of the measuring and mixing is so simple. Plus, it cooks over low-to-medium heat so no hissing, popping oil to worry about. It’s a great way for kids to build some foundational cooking experience and gain confidence in the kitchen.
Younger kids will love whisking the milk-mayo mixture, while older kids will enjoy the responsibility of stirring a hot pan. And you, the adult, can supervise without worrying that someone’s going to stick a hand that touched something raw in their eye because every single ingredient is safe to eat uncooked.
How to make Tuna Newberg
First, chop and sauté a sweet onion in a large, deep skillet. Then, add the drained tuna straight from the cans to the skillet and cook (well, heat) it using a spoon to break up the bigger chunks. Then, add a mixture of milk, mayo, and flour, stir to combine, and let it simmer until thickened. Serve over rice.
I’ve honed and sharpened the recipe, just a bit, over the years. There’s a little more seasoning involved, now that I know how to layer flavors. The original recipe didn’t call for any salt or pepper, and I’ve also incorporated oregano and paprika into the sauce, instead of sprinkling it on top as an afterthought. And I really do have to credit my brother who discovered that the overall Tuna Newberg experience is enhanced when you use a sweet onion instead of a white or yellow onion.
A note on ingredients and proportions
I’ve written this recipe with the ingredients and ingredient quantities that I always use, but I encourage you to think of them as guidelines more than rules. It’s hard to mess this up, so don’t sweat it if you don’t have everything in just the right amounts*.
- Don’t like large pieces of onion? Do a small dice instead of a large chop. Use a quarter of an onion instead of half. You do you. A sweet onion is ideal, but if you only have a white onion on hand, you’ll be fine.
- Want more tuna for a thicker sauce? Use 3 large cans. Want less tuna? Use 2 large cans (12 oz) and 1 regular-sized can (5 oz). Grocery store had a deal on 5 oz cans? Use 6 or 7 of them instead of buying the big ones.
- Don’t like paprika or basil? Don’t use them! They’re gone. Add them at the end as a garnish if you want to but someone else eating with you doesn’t.
- Really like paprika and basil? Add some to the onions in the pan before you add the tuna AND to the milk mixture, instead of just to the milk mixture.
- Don’t like mayo? I once had a friend make this recipe using feta cheese instead of mayo and he said it worked great. Yeah! I know! It sounds weird. I can’t personally say whether or not it was delicious, but he said he liked it.
- Want some heat? Finish with a pinch of cayenne, or some crushed red pepper flakes at the end.
The one thing you absolutely cannot skip is the flour. My mom tried making Tuna Newberg on vacation once (we didn’t want to buy a whole bag of flour for a one-week lake trip), and that was the moment we learned that flour is key for helping the sauce thicken as it simmers. In hindsight, yes, duh, but in the moment… we did what we did.
Proportions: If you want to reduce the recipe or make a smaller amount (Why would you? It’s great as leftovers, or eaten cold on rice cakes) the milk/mayo/flour mixture is perfectly proportioned for easily cutting down by thirds:
3 cups milk + 1 cup mayo + 3 TBSP flour = 5-6 servings
2 cups milk + 2/3 cup mayo + 2 TSBP flour = 4-5 servings
1 cup milk + 1/3 cup mayo + 1 TBSP flour = 3-4 servings
Reduce the amount of tuna and onion by roughly 1/3 to match.
- Large 12″ skillet with lid and tall sides
- 4 cup liquid measuring cup
- Narrow wire whisk (I like this ball-end one because it creates less splashing)
- Can opener
Tuna Newberg with RiceCourse: DinnerDifficulty: Easy
A thick, creamy tuna sauce served warm over rice. For a dinner that comes together fast, requires minimal cooking, and makes everyone happy, look no further than Tuna Newberg.
Rice (however much you need, prepared according to the instructions on the bag or in a rice cooker)
2 large (12 oz) + 1 medium (5 oz) cans of tuna, drained
1/2 or 1 whole medium or large sweet onion, chopped
(NOTE: A white or yellow onion will work, but a sweet onion makes a noticeable improvement.)
3 cups milk
1 cup mayo
3 TBSP flour
1-2 TBSP dried oregano (plus more for topping)
1 tsp paprika
1/4 tsp salt (plus more, to taste)
Freshly ground black pepper
- Prepare rice according to package directions.
- In a large, high-walled skillet, sauté onion in 1-2 TBSP oil over medium heat until translucent (approx 5-7 minutes). This is a very gentle sauté, you don’t want to burn or brown the onion.
Optional: Add 1/4 tsp paprika and 1/2 TBSP basil here.
- Open and drain tuna cans. Add to skillet with onions and reduce heat to medium-low. Stir with a wooden spoon or spatula, breaking up larger chunks of tuna.
- In a 4 cup liquid measuring cup combine milk, mayo, flour, salt, and a few grinds of black pepper. Whisk to combine. Add basil and paprika and whisk again until smooth and no visible lumps of flour or mayo remain.
- Return skillet to medium heat and pour in the milk mixture. Bring to a low simmer, stirring occasionally to prevent tuna from sticking to the bottom of the pan.
- Reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, for 10 minutes, and then uncovered 10-15 minutes more, stirring occasionally, until thickened.
- Serve in bowls over rice. Sprinkle with additional basil to garnish.
- Leftovers: Reheat in a microwave or eat cold on rice cakes.
If you like this, you’ll probably also like my recipe for Grammy’s Deli Tuna Salad.