This classic tuna and pasta salad recipe is a tasty side dish for potlucks and picnics and makes a great meal prep lunch, that keeps well the whole week long. Cold tuna pasta salad is an old-fashioned recipe that never goes out of style. Use whatever type of small pasta or macaroni you have on hand and a couple of cans of albacore tuna. This quick and easy tuna mac salad is ready in under half an hour from start to finish.
I always thought this popular side dish was a “Southern” thing, until I mentioned it to my husband, Scott, who hails from Minnesota. He said tuna mac salad was a mainstay at all his family cookouts and a favorite at neighborhood block parties… So much for my preconceived notions… No matter its origins, this cold tuna pasta salad never lasts long and for good reason. It’s SO GOOD.
Tuna and pasta salad ingredients
- Small Pasta
- Green Bell Pepper
- Sweet Onion
- Relish (sweet or dill pickle relish)
- Kosher Salt
- Black Pepper
- Fresh Lemon Juice
- Canned Tuna
- Fresh Parsley
- Celery Leaves
- Fresh Dill
Tips for classic tuna mac salad
The most important tip I can give you about prepping the tuna mac salad is to pay attention to how you chop the veggies. You don’t want any BIG pieces. The bell pepper, celery and onion should be chopped very fine, so that they blend into the cold tuna pasta salad rather than standing out. You want their flavor and crunch without exactly knowing what you’re biting into (if that makes sense). It should be one homogenous dish — and the best way to accomplish it is a fine dice (about 1/4″), so get out your cutting board and a sharp chef’s knife (or santoku) and let’s get chopping.
Making the salad base
- Chop the veggies finely and add them to a large bowl.
- Add the relish. (I prefer dill pickle relish, but I know many people who are hard-core sweet relish fans. Use whatever suits your tastes)
- Stir in the mayonnaise, lemon juice, salt and pepper and mix to combine. This is the base of the salad and you want it to be very well blended before you add the canned tuna.
- Add the drained canned tuna and break apart the flakes into much smaller pieces, rubbing the flaked tuna against the veggies to break it down. Make sure the tuna is well coated with the mayonnaise dressing. If it seems dry, you can add another tablespoon or so of mayonnaise.
Best pasta for the salad
You can use any small variety of noodle for this cold tuna pasta salad. My suggestions would be:
- Ditalini (shown)
- Elbow Macaroni
- Mini Farfalle
- Small Shells
Pasta tips for cold tuna macaroni salad
Most recipes require that the pasta is cooked to al dente, however for this tuna mac, you actually want to cook the noodles for about 30 seconds to one minute LONGER than the package directions for al dente. That’s because after it’s cooked, you’ll immediately STOP THE COOKING PROCESS by running it under cold water (you don’t want to add hot pasta to the mayonnaise-based tuna salad). When the pasta is completely cooled, be sure to drain the noodles very well before adding them to the tuna mixture.
Finishing the pasta salad
- Add the drained pasta to the cold tuna salad and gently toss the noodles to coat with the mayo dressing.
- Fresh herbs are the final touch. I like a blend of parsley, dill and celery leaves. About 1/4 to 1/3 cup of finely chopped herbs give this simple side dish a lot of life.
Additional popular add ins:
- Chopped hard-boiled eggs (add 2). Chopped egg blends well with the tuna and mayo.
- Defrosted frozen peas (add 1/2-3/4 cup). Adds a fresh snap – and the peas are about the same size as ditalini pasta.
- Finely chopped radish (4-5 radishes) adds a peppery bite and a bit of color.
- Finely diced red onion (add about 1/3 cup) adds heat and sharpness.
- 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 extra ingredients. Season your tuna and pasta salad to taste.
We like this cold tuna pasta dish all summer long. It’s creamy and light tasting without being overly mayonnaise-y. The squeeze of fresh lemon juice adds a nice brightness and the fresh herbs really perk up the whole tuna mac salad. This batch was immediately spotted in the fridge by Scott who claimed it for his lunches all week long.
How long will cold tuna pasta salad last?
This salad will last in an airtight container for about 5 days in the refrigerator. If you’re serving at room temperature inside, it should be ok, 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 resting the bowl in a larger bowl of ice to keep the cold tuna pasta salad chilled.
More pasta side dishes you might like:
- Healthy Turmeric Pearl Couscous
- Farfalle with Pepperoni Broccoli and Mozzarella
- Grilled Greek Orzo Salad
Tuna Pasta Salad
- 1/2 pound small pasta, cooked such as ditalini, elbow macaroni, mini bowties, etc.
- 1/2 cup finely diced celery from 2-3 stalks, reserve leaves
- 1/2 cup green bell pepper finely diced
- 1/2 cup sweet onion finely diced
- 1/3 cup pickle relish can use sweet or dill
- 1/2 cup mayonnaise we like Duke's or Hellman's
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 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
- 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.