The Tuna Melt Manifesto: 7 Ways to Improve Your Melt
As American as apple pie, tuna melts prove that the unexpected combination of tuna salad and hot cheese can be deeply delicious. There are many ways to make them, but some rules shall not be broken.
On April 19th, Virginia Senator Mark Warner posted a video on Instagram that horrified a nation. In the video, title simply, “Tuna Melt,” Warner stood in front of a modest electric stove in a bare home kitchen and made what he described as one of his favorite recipes, one he said he’d learned as a kid. He described it as a way to “go back to basics” and get through these difficult months of coronavirus and quarantine.
His tone was earnest, his recipe choice humble, but, boy oh boy, there was no forgiving the string of culinary sins he proceeded to commit against bread, condiment, cheese, and fish. First, he squirted thick globs of Hellmann’s directly onto soft, un-toasted slices of white sandwich bread. Then he scraped big chunks of poorly drained tuna directly from the can on top of that, attempting and failing to mash down the stubbornly dry flakes of canned fish with a fork.
After that, he slapped a couple slices of cheese on top, proudly proclaiming himself a “two-slice man,” and then put his creation in…the microwave. What came out could only be described as an abomination.
At the very same time that Warner was massacring his tuna melt, I, as if guided by fate, had already started my own efforts at the sandwich’s redemption. I was on a mission to create the most righteous, and undeniably delicious tuna melt I could—and, though I didn’t know it at the time, restore order to the Tuna Meltiverse.
The tuna melt is an American culinary icon—admittedly one hell of a strange one—and so instead of declaring from high on the mount my own rules for the perfect tuna melt, I wanted to build these commandments as democratically as possible. And so I asked the people, What makes for a good tuna melt? The answers poured in, and they were more varied than I ever could have imagined.
The range of opinions on the “right” cheese, the “right” bread, the “right” flavorings, the “right” textures and temperatures convinced me that no single “perfect” tuna melt exists. Instead, there’s an infinite number of potentially perfect versions, each reflecting the diverse tastes and experiences of the people who share, if nothing else, the conviction that canned tuna and melted cheese belong together on bread.
The resulting commandments are better than I could have ever come up with on my own because they take this diversity into account. There’s even a tidbit of wisdom from Warner, proof that even the worst tuna melt isn’t entirely terrible. The recipes I created to accompany these commandments are equally diverse: Instead of a single tuna melt recipe, I’ve created three, each representing a tuna-melt archetype. There’s the “All-American,” a diner-esque creation that strips the tuna melt to the basics of fish, cheese, mayo, and white bread. Then there’s the “Jewish deli-style,” which offers a tuna salad flavored more assertively with celery, sweet relish, mustard, onion, and dill. And finally, there’s the one with “The Works,” which in my recipe’s case includes bacon, tomato, avocado, pickled jalapeños, and more, but really just serves as an example of how personalized a tuna melt can become.
To be honest, I suspect Senator Warner knew more than he let on when he decided to share his tuna melt how-to. The signs that he was in on the joke were there from the beginning—the self-aware editing and captions, the shocking close-ups and clumsy execution, the suggestion that “unless you’re a professional chef, you may want to pause the video so you can keep up,” and, perhaps most telling of all, the gorgeous Mediterranean mortar and pestle that could only be in the kitchen of someone who knows a thing or two about good food.* I think he wanted to get us all talking, and it worked.
*I reached out to Warner’s Digital Media Director for comment on the mortar and pestle and was told Warner’s daughters are much better cooks than the Senator. Still, even if he can’t cook as well as his daughters, merely being in the same family as someone who would know to invest in a mortar and pestle of that caliber would lead to some culinary knowhow.
Thou Shalt Use Whatever Bread You Want, But Respect its Proportions
It must be rye! It must be white! No, whole wheat is where it’s at! Opinions on bread type were strong and varied, and, after testing numerous versions, I’m gonna be honest with you—I really don’t care.
No, that’s not it. I do care. I just like them all. Different breads can work well in different tuna melt constructions. The key, then, isn’t determining the best bread for a tuna melt, it’s in understanding the role each kind of bread can play in a specific recipe.
Rye is great in a Jewish-deli style tuna melt that’s seasoned more assertively with relish, dill, and celery, and finished with melted Swiss cheese. White bread is great on an All-American diner-style tuna melt made with little more than Hellmann’s and slices of Cheddar or American—the “basic ‘wich” of tuna melts (bonus points if you pair it with a can of TaB). Sourdough, brioche, challah, boules, and baguettes—you name it, and it can make a good tuna melt if it’s thoughtfully combined with the right cheese and mix-ins (although it’s best to avoid using bread with an open crumb, which would make for a very messy melt).
Here’s what does matter about the bread: You need to respect its proportions. Too much mayonnaise-y tuna salad becomes grotesque without an appropriate amount of bread to cut its fishy, fatty intensity. But how thick the bread needs to be depends on both its tenderness and whether you’re going with an open-faced construction or not.
Heartier, more rustic bread with more chew and crust should be sliced thinner than light and fluffy white bread, since it’s more work to chew through. The slab of bread used as the base for an open-faced tuna melt, meanwhile, should be approximately twice as thick as the same type of bread used for the two pieces on a closed version; assuming the amount of tuna salad is equal on both sandwiches, a double-thick single slice ensures that the ratio of bread to tuna remains consistent when going open-faced.
These are ballpark ratios and will depend on the specifics, of course, but I found the sweet spot to be in the following zone: For every five-ounce can of tuna, you should make either two open-faced tuna melts on one-inch-thick slices of bread, or two closed sandwiches with half-inch-thick slices of the same bread.
The other important thing with the bread is to toast it properly, but that one’s so important it gets its own commandment…
Thou Shalt Toast Thine Bread Properly
While I’m sure most of us can agree that Warner’s steamy microwaved sandwich bread isn’t the way to go, that’s where the consensus ends. I tried a bunch of toasting options from dry-toasted to mayo-slathered to oil and butter-basted bread and beyond.
Dry-toasting the bread, which I did carefully over an open flame to get some nicely singed edges, was tastier than I expected, and helped keep the sandwich from seeming greasy. It’s nice to know that dry-toasting works, but we still need to work out the best way to use oil or another fat during toasting for a more traditional griddle-style sandwich. This is key, because managing greasiness is a primary concern for such a rich sandwich.
A good tuna melt has contrasting textures: melty cheese, fluffy tuna filling, and tender bread that’s crisp as can be right on its surface. The risk with most toasting methods in a skillet or on a griddle is that you accidentally add an excess of oil or butter to the cooking surface, since the cooking surface is larger than the bread you will toast on it. The bread, acting like a sponge, soaks it all up, and before you know it you’re eating a mayo-rich tuna salad, with gooey melted cheese, on grease-laden bread. It’s a gut bomb.
Step one in avoiding this result is to brush the bread with fat before toasting instead of adding the fat to the pan or griddle. By brushing the bread you can evenly and thoroughly cover the entire surface of each slice without over-saturating it.
Step two is toasting both sides of the bread, which, just like with a well-made grilled cheese, delivers a more pronounced crisp texture when you bite into the sandwich.
Step three is to be thoughtful about the fat you choose for greasing the bread. Oil makes for the crispiest toast. Butter is tastier, but its water content can hamper surface crisping, something that was pointed out to me by the chef Jason Vincent on Twitter, and which I confirmed in my own tests.
Clarified butter would solve this problem since it no longer has any crispness-hindering water in it, but most of us don’t keep that on-hand in our home kitchens and are unlikely to make it just for a tuna melt. One method suggested by Vincent is to toast the bread with oil for maximum crispness, then lightly brush the toasts with melted butter after to add just a touch of that rich dairy flavor flavor; it’s a method that works well. Another, which I stumbled on when adding bacon to one of my melts, is to toast the bread in rendered bacon fat if you happen to have some available. In the end, melted butter works well enough on its own, though it’s harder to get quite the same degree of crispness on the bread, so you just have to keep that in mind.
As for slathering bread with mayo for toasting? It’s a popular trick used for grilled cheese sandwiches, but I didn’t like it for tuna melts. They have enough mayo as it is thanks to the tuna salad, and adding more to the bread only risks a heavy-handed vinegar tang that pervades every layer of the sandwich. It was my least favorite option.
Thou Shalt Smash the Tuna to Smithereens
One of the big questions many may wonder is what kind of tuna to use. Oil-packed? The watery stuff? Some $15 jar of imported Spanish tuna? This one I already knew the answer to from my earlier tuna salad tests: When it comes to a mayonnaise-based tuna salad, it really doesn’t matter. The addition of mayo masks differences in tuna type. In most cases, a basic water-packed tuna, or tuna in its own juices is fine, no need to pay an olive-oil premium.
What does matter, though, is how you handle the tuna, and the secret is to absolutely smash it into tiny shreds with a fork. Tuna muscle is lean, which means that well-done tuna, which all canned tuna is, is incredibly dry (the exception is tuna belly, sold as “ventresca,” which is way too fancy and pricey for a tuna melt). That dry texture will be detectable in the final sandwich unless you pulverize the tuna so thoroughly that every last muscle fiber is coated in mayo.
It’s not hard to do, it just takes a fork or stiff spatula and some committed stirring and mashing. Keep at it until every last flake of tuna has been crushed and incorporated into a light and fluffy cloud of tuna salad. You’ll find the tuna also hold and binds with the mayo once it’s been completely mashed.
Thou Shalt Add Lots of Mayo, Then Soak it Up
A good tuna salad doesn’t skimp on the mayo—as we just established, canned tuna is dry and needs all the moisture help it can get. But a funny thing happens as you spoon mayo into your tuna: Right when you get to the perfect amount, the very last dollop that erases any hint of lean-fish dryness, the tuna salad becomes just a tad too loose.
The solution came from Serious Eats contributor Allison Robicelli, who tipped me off to one of her favorite tricks: adding panko bread crumbs to tuna salad. A couple spoonfuls of panko is just enough to soak up and thicken the excess of mayo, but because panko is such an airy bread crumb, the result is a tuna salad that still seems lighter and moister than one without panko made using slightly less mayo.
If you don’t have panko, don’t worry, just cut down on the mayo slightly and do without (don’t add other, denser bread crumbs!). The tuna salad won’t be quite as light, but it’ll still be good.
As for the mayo itself, in most cases good old Hellmann’s (or another regional favorite like Duke’s) is the way to go. Those tend to be thick and creamy, making a tuna salad that’s less slick and runny than one made with fancier store-bought or homemade mayo—and I say this as a card-carrying member of the homemade mayo society.
Thou Shalt Choose a Good Melter, and Then Melt It
So many cheeses work in a tuna melt. Cheddar, American*, Swiss, Gruyère, Pepper Jack—even low-moisture mozzarella. Which one you use depends on your preferences and the flavor profile of the tuna melt you’re making. I like Cheddar on a basic diner-style melt, Swiss on a dill- and relish-packed version, and Pepper Jack for a tuna salad spiked with pickled chili peppers. Which is to say, you’ve got options.
* Full disclosure, as good of a melter as American cheese is, I find it adds a goopy texture to a tuna melt that I don’t love. I’d take Cheddar over American any day on my melts, but I know not everyone will agree with that, so go with whatever you prefer.
What matters, though, is that you actually melt the cheese. It is a tuna melt, after all. You can sometimes pull this off in a skillet as you griddle the sandwich, as long as there’s enough time for the heat to penetrate through the bread to the cheese slices. You can also use the broiler to melt cheese on top of an open-faced melt, or a hot oven to give a final dose of heat to get your cheese melted. Whatever you do, don’t skip this step, and maybe try not to resort to the microwave, which will steam the sandwich and destroy any crispness it might otherwise have had.
Thou Shalt Use Two Slices of Cheese
Senator Warner got this part right. Two slices are the way to go, though unlike Warner, who put both slices of cheese on top of his tuna, I think it works even better to sandwich the tuna filling with melted cheese both above and below. Once again, two slices of cheese is a proportion thing. Any less and it’s skimpy—it’s a warm tuna salad sandwich without enough of that essential melt. Any more, though, and the sandwich risks veering into gut-bomb territory. You can do it, but proceed with caution.
Thou Shalt Weigh The Tuna Melt Down
Pressing a closed face tuna melt as you cook it is an important step. I do it when I toast the bread slices, since the added weight ensures even browning and crisping all over and helps the heat penetrate into the slices more quickly. (For this, I used my Chef’s Presses, but you can use any weight you have.)
I also do it after I close the sandwich, to help it all become a seamless whole, because a good tuna melt shouldn’t seem like a bunch of components stuck together. It should instead fuse into a distinct entity, in which it’s hard to determine where the bread transitions to cheese, and where the cheese transitions to tuna.
The exception? I don’t weigh down an open-faced tuna melt—that’d just be a mess.
Thou Shalt Avail Thyself of Whatever Add-Ins You Want
There’s a lot to be said for the simplicity of a perfectly made plain mayo-based tuna salad on toast with melted cheese. But there’s also a world of variation that’s possible with flavorings, mix-ins, and sandwich add-ins. Here are just some ideas:
- Panko bread crumbs (see above about why)
- Onions and shallots
- Chili sauces and hot sauces
- Herbs like parsley, dill, tarragon
- Mayo (duh)
- Scallions and chives
- Relish (sweet or dill pickle) or other minced pickles
- Chopped hard-boiled egg
- Pickled chili peppers like jalapeños
- Soy sauce, Worcestershire, and other umami bombs
- Spices like garlic or onion powder or coriander seed
- Potato chips (particularly salt and vinegar)
Some of these are best mixed into the tuna salad, some should be layered on the sandwich, and a few work both ways. That’s a large part of the fun of tuna melts—there are so many possibilities, all of them delicious. But if you’ve learned one thing after all this, I hope it’s to pay attention to the basics, because without that, you’re lost. Senator Warner, you hear that?
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