Tonnato Is the Sauce to Lead You From Winter to Spring

March 16, 2021
Photo by Melina Hammer

Every month, Melina Hammer, Food52's very own Hudson Valley correspondent, is serving up all the bounty that upstate New York has to offer.

Tonnato originally hails from Piedmont Italy, made possible with tuna caught from nearby coastal Liguria. The original sauce consisted of tuna, pounded with anchovies, capers, and olive oil to render it creamy.

In Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well, published in 1891, Pellegrino Artusi instructs you to combine a few ounces of oil-packed tuna with a couple anchovies: “Mash well with the blade of a knife, or better yet, pass through a sieve, adding a generous amount of olive oil, a little at a time.”

The modern convenience that is mayonnaise came on the scene in the 1970s, and tonnato hasn’t been the same since. Using mayonnaise is a modern shortcut, though not a purist’s approach.

On days when I have a packed schedule, I opt for the expedited method. The results are not quite as sumptuous, but the sauce still delivers a deeply lush character, and is extremely versatile. Which means I can readily pull it from the fridge for flavorful food on-the-go, no matter how little time I have to make a meal. When I entertain guests at our Catbird Cottage, I roll out the red carpet, make my own aioli, and proceed with blending the tonnato.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“Wouldn't it have made sense to include the "purist's" version? How much oil should one use if not using mayonnaise?”

Oil-packed tuna is best for this sauce. Fish preserved in this way retains its juiciness and flavor, rather than leeching all that goodness into water. I also prefer a jar to a can because you can see what you’re getting, and it’s easier to strain. Check Monterey Bay Aquarium (here and here) for the most sustainable choices in an array of fish and seafood. When it comes to tuna, they recommend dolphin-safe, pole-and-line-caught albacore and yellowtail to limit the likelihood of bycatch, as well as to reduce the concentration of mercury.

Ingredients such as capers and anchovies add lots of umami. These salty-savory elements trigger that wonderful impulse we drool for. For some heat, you can get creative and add cayenne or Aleppo chile flakes.

Whatever your approach, tonnato is quick to come together—the real challenge is not eating it by the spoonful straight from the jar once it’s ready. Do chill it for at least 20 minutes to allow the texture to thicken and flavors meld.

The summer luxury of chilled vitello tonnato (saucy sliced veal) is the most well-known preparation you’ll find with this robust condiment. But don’t limit it to veal, or even meat.

When spring peas and tender lettuce greens arrive, I thin tonnato to make a dressing. When juicy, lush tomatoes are ready to harvest, I slather tonnato at the base of a plate and shingle thick slices on top, and add torn herbs to finish it off. I love when wild salmon is in season, and add tonnato to a roasted or grilled fillet.

Slather on toast, pile high with crunchy radishes and bright herbs. Or swirl to coat a plate before nestling with verdant, tender spring things, a delectable complement to the punchy sauce. I even stir a spoonful or two into grains and legumes, and salads too. In doing so, whatever I’m eating reaches new heights.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • DKS
  • Hazelfield2
  • Melina Hammer
    Melina Hammer
Melina is the author of 'A Year at Catbird Cottage' with Ten Speed Press. She grows an heirloom and pollinator garden and forages wild foods at her namesake Hudson Valley getaway, Catbird Cottage. Melina loves serving curated menus for guests from near and far seeking community amidst the hummingbirds, grosbeaks, finches, and the robust flavors of the seasons.


DKS March 21, 2021
Wouldn't it have made sense to include the "purist's" version? How much oil should one use if not using mayonnaise?
Melina H. March 21, 2021
Ha! The entire basis of the recipes is for those which can be made expeditiously. Most modern tonnato includes mayonnaise, whether store bought or homemade. Experiment and make a version using oil, and please report back. I’d love to hear your findings!
Hazelfield2 March 16, 2021
What is the ratio of oil to a can of tuna.
Melina H. March 16, 2021
Check either of the linked recipes for the proportion of oil to use. Would love to hear which one you make ;)
Hazelfield2 March 16, 2021
I prefer making tuna mayo from scratch as in Elizabeth David. My query was to allow a comparison
Melina H. March 16, 2021
My version incorporates jarred tuna, drained, and a little oil. I think the looseness of the sauce is purpose-specific (and subjective) and encourage you to make it the way it feels best suited, ultimately. How much oil in E. David’s version?