This tuna pasta salad is a quick and easy recipe that uses everyday ingredients and pantry staples including dry pasta and canned tuna fish. This simple tuna pasta salad recipe is ready in under half an hour from start to finish and your family will love it.
Canned tuna and pasta have been a a classic combination since our grandmother’s and great-grandmother’s time, and these types of cold pasta salads with a can or two of tuna were commonly referred to as tuna macaroni salad.
This recipe for cold tuna salad with pasta is a classic — and is loosely based on one my grandmother used to make.
Table of Contents
Why this recipe works:
- You can use any type of canned tuna and any short/small pasta for this recipe.
- Most of the ingredients are things you likely already have on hand.
- It’s ready to eat in 30 minutes.
- The recipe can be made ahead.
- It’s naturally dairy-free.
- Kids and adults love this homestyle comfort food dish.
- Canned Tuna – You can use your favorite brand, either packed in water or oil.
- Pasta – I recommend a small bite-sized pasta such as elbow macaroni, ditalini, small shells, mini farfalle (bowties) or orzo.
- Green Bell Pepper – to add a vegetal quality and crunch.
- Onion – you can use yellow, white or red onion, or my preference, a sweet onion like Vidalia or Walla Walla.
- Celery – I use both the stalks of celery and the pale green leaves (there’s flavor there).
- Relish – either sweet or dill pickle relish, whichever you prefer.
- Mayonnaise – I prefer Duke’s or Hellman’s.
- Kosher Salt – I usually use Diamond Crystal because it’s less salty by volume than Morton’s. If you have Morton’s, scale back on the salt by about ⅓. You can always add more if needed.
- Black Pepper – Freshly ground black pepper will give you the boldest flavor.
- Lemon Juice – I recommend squeezing it yourself — it’s much more fresh and flavorful than those yellow squeeze bottles of “RealLemon”.
- Fresh Parsley – for freshness.
- Fresh Dill – Dill has a distinctive flavor that pairs well with the pasta and tuna in this salad. If you don’t have it, you can skip it, but it’s really nice.
- Boil a large pot of water and add the noodles. Cook the pasta for 30 seconds to one minute longer than “al dente” directions.
- Drain the pasta through a sieve and run cold water over the noodles until they are no longer warm.
- Dice the celery, onion and green pepper. Combine them with the relish in a large bowl.
- Add the mayonnaise, lemon juice, kosher salt and pepper.
- Stir to combine the ingredients.
- Drain the tuna well and break it up to add to the vegetable mixture. Stir well until the tuna is coated with the mayo dressing.
- Add the cooked and cooled pasta and toss well until the tuna pasta salad is well combined.
- Stir in the fresh parsley, herbs and celery leaves, if using.
- Avoid big chunks of vegetables, by dicing the celery, onion and pepper into a fine ¼” dice; they should be smaller than the pasta. You want their flavor and crunch throughout the tuna pasta salad, but not so large as to be identifiable.
- Tame the heat of the onion – if you use yellow, red or white onion, the flavor can be sharp and overpowering. Chop the allium and add it to a bowl of ice water for about 10 minutes to remove some of the sting and pungency.
- Flake the tuna with a fork (or your clean fingers) to break down larger pieces into small bite-sized bits. Canned tuna can taste dry, especially if eaten in a large chunk. Breaking it down will allow the fish to meld more comprehensively with the mayonnaise dressing and keep it moist.
- Cool the pasta with cold water to stop the cooking process. Noodles will continue to cook from the residual heat from boiling — and hot noodles soak up more liquid than cold. To avoid a mushy tuna pasta salad, it’s important to shock the noodles with cold water (until they aren’t even warm anymore.
- Shake the noodles in the sieve or colander after you rinse them to remove any excess moisture, and set them aside to continue to drain in the sieve. If the noodles are watery, your tuna and pasta salad will be watery, too.
- Add hard-boiled eggs (about 2, finely chopped). The chopped egg will blend well with the tuna and mayo.
- Defrosted frozen peas (½-¾ cup) add a fresh color and flavor. Bonus — peas are about the same size as ditalini pasta, so the ingredients are easy to scoop by the forkful.
- Finely chopped radish (4-5 radishes) adds a peppery bite and a bit of vibrant color.
- Add green olives (sliced in half) for a briny, rich flavor.
- Toss in halved cherry tomatoes or diced cucumbers for more veggies.
- For a spicy twist – add a finely diced jalapeno pepper or a few dashes of your favorite hot sauce.
- Want a healthier, lighter tuna fish pasta salad? Swap Greek yogurt for the mayonnaise. It will be less rich, but will save you calories.
- Make it gluten-free by using your favorite gluten-free pasta.
NOTE: If you’re adding these extras, you may need a few more tablespoons of mayonnaise and an extra squeeze of lemon in your dressing to compensate for the additional ingredients. After adding any additional ingredients, taste the tuna mac salad for seasoning. Adjust as necessary.
Make Ahead: You can make the tuna salad with pasta 1-2 days ahead, though I recommend waiting to add the herbs until the last minute for freshness and flavor. Keep the tuna mac salad refrigerated in an airtight container and stir well before serving.
Storage: Leftovers can be kept in the fridge for 3-5 days. Stirring in extra fresh herbs or a squeeze of lemon juice will perk up the flavors of the salad.
Freezing: I don’t recommend freezing this salad. The vegetables will leak their moisture and ruin the texture of the salad. It’s best when freshly made.
For Potlucks & Picnics: If you plan to serve the tuna pasta salad inside, it should be fine, for about 2 hours. If you’re serving outside and it’s really hot, it’s safe for about an hour (though I’d recommend storing it in a cooler).
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Tuna Pasta Salad
- ½ pound small pasta, cooked such as ditalini, elbow macaroni, mini bowties, etc.
- ½ cup finely diced celery from 2-3 stalks, reserve leaves
- ½ cup green bell pepper finely diced
- ½ cup sweet onion finely diced
- ⅓ cup pickle relish can use sweet or dill
- ½ cup mayonnaise we like Duke’s or Hellman’s
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon fresh cracked pepper
- 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
- 2 7 ounce cans albacore tuna packed in water drained (I prefer Kirkland brand from Costco)
- 2 tablespoons fresh parsley chopped, optional
- 1 tablespoon reserved celery leaves chopped, optional
- 2 teaspoons fresh dill chopped, optional
- Cook the pasta 30 seconds to 1 minute past al dente based on package instructions). Pour cooked pasta through a colander and run cold water over the pasta to stop the cooking and cool it immediately. Set aside.
- In a large bowl, combine the celery, onion, bell pepper, pickle relish, mayonnaise, salt, pepper and lemon juice in a large bowl and mix to combine.
- Drain the tuna well and add it to the vegetable mixture. Use a fork to break apart the larger chunks of tuna and stir well to combine and further break down the tuna into smaller bits.
- Add the cooled drained pasta and toss gently to combine. Add the fresh herbs and mix until evenly distributed. Serve immediately or chill for several hours or overnight. Can be served chilled or cool as a main course, or side dish.
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