FEBRUARY 4 2022 UPDATE – This post was featured in a mashed.com article on tuna salad! Welcome, mashed.com readers and thank you to Joanna Steven for including TFD in the article with such kind words! 🙏
Tuna melt – it sounds so pedestrian, so banal, so recherché.
If that’s what you are thinking – leave now, I don’t want you in my world and your soul has lost all hope for culinary salvation.
A well-made, proper tuna melt is a sandwich of beauty and unmatched savor, and I will teach you to make the best one on the planet.
Tuna salad has been eaten for over 100 years. The first written reference to tuna salad, in America, appeared in 1907, and by 1914 dozens of recipes had been published. Tuna salad (especially with celery), is similar to chicken salad while also being much cheaper – a fact that helped its early rise in popularity.
Due to the high nutritional content of tuna salad, it assumed the reputation of a diet food in the 1960s.
As noted in this excerpt from a fascinating article on sandwich history from Smithsonian magazine:
The tuna salad sandwich originated from an impulse to conserve, only to become a symbol of excess.
In the 19th century – before the era of supermarkets and cheap groceries – most Americans avoided wasting food. Scraps of chicken, ham or fish from supper would be mixed with mayonnaise and served on lettuce for lunch. Leftovers of celery, pickles and olives – served as supper “relishes” – would also be folded into the mix.
The versions of these salads that incorporated fish tended to use salmon, white fish or trout. Most Americans didn’t cook (or even know of) tuna.
Around the end of the 19th century, middle-class women began to spend more time in public, patronizing department stores, lectures and museums. Since social conventions kept these women out of the saloons where men ate, lunch restaurants opened up to cater to this new clientele. They offered women exactly the kind of foods they had served each other at home: salads. While salads made at home often were composed of leftovers, those at lunch restaurants were made from scratch. Fish and shellfish salads were typical fare.
When further social and economic changes brought women into the public as office and department store workers, they found fish salads waiting for them at the affordable lunch counters patronized by busy urban workers. Unlike the ladies’ lunch, the office lunch hour had time limits. So lunch counters came up with the idea of offering the salads between two pieces of bread, which sped up table turnover and encouraged patrons to get lunch to go.
When canned tuna was introduced in the early 20th century, lunch counters and home cooks could skip the step of cooking a fish and go straight to the salad. But there was downside: The immense popularity of canned tuna led to the growth of a global industry that has severely depleted stocks and led to the unintended slaughter of millions of dolphins. A clever way to use dinner scraps has become a global crisis of conscience and capitalism.
Now, as to the MAKING of the ultimate tuna salad…
First – a tuna salad secret held closely by old-school Jewish deli men that I will share at great risk to life and limb.
This may surprise you, but the secret to a truly awesome deli-style tuna salad is a bit of schmaltz, aka rendered chicken fat!
Yes – schmaltz. If you are unfamiliar with the liquid glory that is schmaltz – you are truly missing out on one of the world’s greatest taste sensations, Citizen! Fear not for your cholesterol, the secret is that you use only enough to add a richness to the mayo that you can’t quite put your finger on.
Trust me – this works and it is the reason so many old-school deli tuna sandwiches tasted so good. If you prefer, leave out the schmaltz but trust me, you’re missing out if you do.
As for the mayonnaise – there are only 2 ½ choices. Period.
If you live on the East coast of the United States, it’s Hellmann’s – if you live on the West coast, it’s Best Foods. They are in fact identical, just possessing different brand names in different regions. This is my personal choice – if you live in the South, go with Duke’s brand, which has a sharper vinegar tang.
Make this into a tuna melt with top-quality cheese and you have a true diner classic, with a touch of true Jewish deli thrown in for good measure.
My other secret ingredients – a hint of curry powder, which I find really amps up the flavor quotient in a truly delicious way and a special cheese blend that exemplifies deliciousness.
As for the tuna – if you are a Citizen of TFD Nation, then you already seek out the finest in provender and as such you really should be using Ortiz brand tuna in oil. It’s the best tuna I’ve had the privilege of sampling – yes, it’s pricey. Yes, it’s totally worth it. You can buy a 4-can pack from here. If this is too rich for your blood, go with a top-quality white tuna in oil instead.
The bread should ideally – in My option – be nothing less than a loaf of character if you like a bread with flavor complementing the tuna salad – a light rye is ideal. Otherwise, I enjoy a soft, neutral potato bread – crusts cut off, thank you. Sweet pickle relish is a must in My tuna salad – Wickles is the best brand I’ve found, you can buy it here.
Be sure and finely mince the celery and shallot to the smallest dice you can – and make sure they’re the same size. Textural consistency is very important in this sandwich.
Enjoy my killer recipe, Citizens! If you want to try a very different kind of tuna salad sandwich, this one from the Island of Malta is quite amazing! The Hirshon Maltese Tuna Sandwich – Ħobż Biż-żejt u Tadam u l-Kunserva
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