Tuna Noodle Casserole

Last month when Kate and I were interviewed for the New York Times my conversation with the interviewer at one point got on the subject of foods from my childhood that I hold a fondness for.  Without hesitation I started talking about casseroles.  When I was a kid we ate lots of cream-of-something soup casseroles.  As much as we like to get “foodie” around here, those retro condensed soup casseroles are some of my most favorite comfort foods and I still make many of them for my family. One of my favorites back then was tuna noodle. I’m sure my Mom made it the same way lots of people do, with cream of mushroom soup and cheddar cheese, and potato chips on top.  That layer of crunchy potato chips melted into gooey cheese was my faaaaavorite thing.  We’d always conveniently scoop our servings horizontally, as to scrape off as much of the topping as possible.  Kate and I have gotten a lot of requests for a tuna noodle casserole over the past few years, and since one of my New Year’s resolutions was to cook more fish at home (seriously; lose weight, start doing laundry on a regular basis, and eat more fish.  The only one I’m totally sucking at is laundry.  I should stop making that goal.) I thought this would be a fun recipe to makeover.

Tuna noodle is typically made with wide egg noodles, but I like to use medium sized shell pasta because I like how it sort of holds everything together and the little shells fill up with sauce and veggies and bits of tuna.  I make it with bowties sometimes too and those work great as well.

Tuna noodle also often includes frozen or canned peas.  Have I ever told you I’m not a huge fan of peas?  Also commercials where they make babies talk like adults, but we’ll save that conversation for another day.  To freshen things up I’m using fresh diced onions, celery, and mushrooms.  It may seem like a lot of mushrooms, but remember they cook down a lot.

All three of these veggies take different amounts of time to cook, so I toss the celery in the pan first, with a little butter.  Once they cook a little, then I add the onions,

and then the mushrooms go in last.  Once the mushrooms start cooking, you might need a little more moisture, so drizzle in a little olive oil if you need to.   You can continue cooking the veggies until the mushrooms are as cooked as you want them to be.  I like mine pretty cooked down.

When the veggies are done cooking, you’ll take them out of the pan and then start a little roux to thicken your sauce.  Melt a few pats of butter and add a few tablespoons of flour.

Whisk it until it’s nice and smooth and then add the liquid.  I use a combo of chicken broth for flavor and milk for added creaminess.  If you warm both the broth and the milk before adding it to your roux it will mix up a lot easier.  Salt and pepper goes in the pot, as well as a hint of dried dill.

After it heats and thickens, turn the heat way down and add a little fresh parsley and lemon juice.  I kept the lemon juice in the written recipe minimal, simply enough to brighten the flavor, but you can absolutely add more to taste.  When I make it, I add quite a bit more.  Like sometimes the whole lemon.  But you should know by now that me and lemons have a thing.

That’s it for the sauce.  Toss the pasta in, along with the cooked veggies and the tuna.  You can really add as much tuna as you like.  I just add one 5 ounce can, but you could add two, or one of the larger sized cans if you want to load it with fish.  If you don’t want to make it with tuna, you could sub canned or fresh chicken or turkey.  I’m also using Parmesan cheese, but you could be creative and try out other cheeses.  You could go with the retro-classic cheddar or a mild swiss would be yummy too.  Whatever you decide, toss it in there.

Stir it all together and put it in a casserole dish.  Just eyeball it and pick one that fits- if you want a high topping-to-pasta ratio, choose a larger pan, or fill a smaller one nice and deep.  If you do choose a larger sized pan, you may want to double the topping; I make mine in a pan that’s about 8×8 so the topping is done accordingly.

Speaking of topping…in my experience everyone has strong feelings about casserole toppings.  So you can switch it up however you like; I sort of use whatever I happen to have at the moment.  If I’ve got a bag of potato chips, I go old-school with those.  I’ve found that kettle style chips stay a lot crunchier.  I also love a cracker crumb topping (as shown in pics); buttery Ritz are super yummy.  You could also do breadcrumbs or toasted panko.  Pick your poison, and then sprinkle it over a layer of cheese on top.

When it bakes up in the oven, the toasty cracker crumbs/chips/breadcrumbs brown up and combine with the melty cheese to form a cheesy crunchy crust on top.  Hands down one of my favorite things in the world.

Make sure to let it sit for 10-15 minutes before serving so the sauce can thicken up as it cools a bit.  Serve it as a one-dish dinner, or along with a salad and some crusty french bread on the side.

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  1. I like your spin on tuna noodle casserole. Tuna casserole is one of my faves. We use cream of celery as the base. It also calls for pimientos, dry mustard, mayo and miracle whip, milk, cheddar cheese, and of course noodles and tuna. Our topping is torn bread pieces mixed with melted butter and paprika. It’s delish! But I’m going to give this one a whirl. Thanks!

  2. I love tuna noodle casserole! Of course, I wasn’t a fan of my mom’s growing up, but I like it much better now. LOL Luckily, my kids like mine too. 😉 My husband would definitely appreciate the addition of mushrooms!!

  3. 9 years ago I had a horrible pregnancy experience with tuna and have never been able to make tuna casserole again. Your version looks delicious though, and just may be able to get me past my mental block!

  4. My husband is not a very picky eater, but tuna casserole is on his short list of things he absolutely will not eat. I meant to try making it for my kids the last time he was out of town but I forgot. Next time he travels I’ll try your version of it.

    And lest I paint him in too bad a light, he does almost all the laundry at our house so I will never have to set your “do laundry regularly” goal. We are a once a week laundry family because nobody wants to have to think about it more often than that. So everyone pulls all their laundry out to the hall on Thursday morning and on a good week I run a few loads through during the day. After my husband gets home from work he finishes up whatever I don’t get done. Then on Friday night we turn on a movie and fold it (sometimes together, but more often I am working on another project and he folds most or all of the clothes and we have 6 kids so it’s a lot of clothes!) and the kids put their clean clothes away on Saturday morning. It’s a system that works for us. Good luck with yours!

      1. Yeah, I feel no need to step it up. I just let him be better at it. I have other things I’m good at and that’s good enough for me. It’s all about economics — I believe specialization creates the most efficient division of labor and I don’t mind not being the laundry specialist. Ha!

    1. Try substitutin canned chicken instead of tuna. Your hubby could like it better than the tuna.

      Btw, this is an excellent recipe for tuna casserole.

  5. So, this is probably going to sound stupid, but considering I’m six months pregnant with my fourth child in five years, I don’t think much blood is making it to my brain these days! Do you add the pasta uncooked, or cooked? I’m assuming uncooked, but screwing up a recipe puts me into a hormonal downward-spiral these days. 🙂 Thanks! You guys are the greatest thing!

    1. Haha, not a stupid question! If you look at the printable recipe you’ll notice it calls for cooked pasta- so just boil it while you’re preparing the sauce and it will all be ready to go about the same time!

  6. this looks really good though I’m not much of a tuna fan. I may have to try it with chicken though. I totally had to laugh at the baby talking commercial reference. I was just saying to my husband the other night how I hate when they make babies talk in weird adult voices. have a great day!

  7. Thanks for the great recipe! I really like the recipes with a white sauce instead of cream of whatever soup. They are so much easier to convert into gluten-free recipes. (And they taste better!)

  8. This looks really wonderful! I do not buy a lot of processed food; there is rarely a can of cream of anything in my house. So for a long time I have been looking for a way to make Tuna Casserole. Would this base work in other casseroles? I can’t wait to try this! Thank you so much!
    p.s. Have you ever put capers in your tuna casserole? So YUMMY!!

    1. oooh, capers- good idea Brenda! I’ll have to try that. Yes, you could tweak this type of base for a lot of things. It’s just a good thickened base that you could change up with different flavors. You can find a similar all-milk one in this recipe as well.

  9. I think it would totally ROCK with canned (or leftover) salmon instead of tuna. I’m not a big fan of tuna even though my family is, if it cook it I get the final say, right?

  10. What would you do if your husband was allergic to chicken and didn’t like celery? Do you have any suggestions for recipe modifications? I usually substitute veggie broth for chicken broth but then a whole bunch of savory goes away. I might just put the celery in anyway 🙂

    1. If my husband was allergic to chicken I might start holding auditions for a new guy. Haha! Honestly, I’ve never heard of anyone being allergic to chicken- that’s interesting! You can leave the celery out and add any other green veggie you like. Can he eat fish? Turkey? I might try one of those!

      1. I don’t know a good brand but I could easily see fish stock working in this recipe. It would only amp up the seafood-ness of it. Also I love carrots in Tuna Noodle Casserole, so you can definitely sub those for the celery.

      2. My brother is allergic to chicken, AND fish, but he can eat canned tuna. (Go figure.) I’ve never heard of anybody else that was allergic to chicken.

  11. This sounds so good, I wish I had celery and mushrooms so I could make it for dinner tonight. Definitely this week. I love tuna casserole and this sounds so much healthier. Thank you!

  12. I really need to try this. I’m not much of a casserole person. I might go for lasagna or mac and cheese, but generally I’m not a casserole person. The only one I kind of like is my mother in law’s tuna casserole… and even that was still missing something. I might keep the peas, though… I like the peas in hers.

  13. I love the yummy twist you are able put on the ordinary!! Another Best Bites *love* moment.
    I’ve never made tuna noodle casserole, but this is definitely the time to give it a go 🙂 Thank you!

  14. I discovered your blog a couple of weeks ago and have enjoyed several recipes since. Loved the Lime Tart on Oscar Night! My husband asked me early this morning about our plan for dinner and I had no clue. When I got home from work, I checked your blog and found this recipe. I had all the ingredients on hand and it’s in the oven now. Thanks for making my day!

  15. I can’t get my daughter to eat the classic version of tuna casserole, maybe she will eat this since it has no “icky” peas. Thanks for your fab recipes.

  16. For some reason this actually looks good to me but I know my husband would NOT like it – he is super un-picky but has a thing about casseroles and Tuna Noodle is his least favourite one from childhood.
    That being said, have you ever tried adding any cream cheese to the white sauce base? Just curious if that would work as for some reason that came to my mind. With the lemon and dill though, it just sounds yummy. Maybe I will try it on a night when DH will not be home …..

  17. I made this last night for dinner and used ham instead of tuna. It was amazing! However, it could have fed at least 8-10 people! Will certainly make again. Humm, chicken would be good too!

  18. I made this, or at least something like this, last night, after being inspired by your post. I had some left over baked salmon and used that. I must admit that I have tried again and again to make casseroles that in the past used cream of something soup by substituting a white sauce and herbs, but the flavor was just not the same (and of course it is much more work). I usually cook mainly with recipes from Cook’s Illustrated and to Christopher Kimball condensed soup is anathema. Nonetheless, I used cream of mushroom and some milk for the sauce in the salmon noodle casserole last night and it was really good. I liked the fresh vegetable addition you suggested. I am glad to know that you are not dead set against condensed soup. There are too many things to feel guilty about as it is! 🙂

  19. Made a double batch last night. Very yummy. Just used one lemon though, and to me that was plenty. This was a huge hit with my 6 year old and 11 month old. Much better than the canned soup version!

  20. My husband has bad childhood memories of too much tuna casserole. I showed him this version and we’re going to try it with chicken (I like the ham suggestion too). Question: We have a daughter away at college and try to make her mini freezer meals. Would you recommend my baking hers first and then just having her thaw and heat it up, or should I freeze it unbaked and have her bake it. We’re always keeping our eye out for cook-ahead/freezer meals and tips. LOVE your blog and your cookbook which we often give as a wedding/bridal shower gift.

    1. You know, you’d have to experiment with freezing. Sometimes sauces thickened with flour separate during the freezing process. I would probably freeze unbaked though, thaw in the fridge overnight, stir- and then bake.

  21. I think I have only made a casserole maybe 1 or 2 times in my whole adult life since I left home and started cooking for myself. I remember liking them as a child (my mom made them a ton) but it didn’t even occur to me to put it on my dinner menu and really, the thought of breaking out a can of “cream of something” kind of makes me cringe. I really might have to try it with a homemade sauce, like yours.

  22. It’s in the oven now and I can’t wait to try it! The sauce tasted delicious before I even added the pasta and tuna in…so I only had about 1/4 cup of Parmesan and just made up the rest with Mozz.

  23. I made this for dinner last night and it was so divine. I ate the leftovers for breakfast because I couldn’t wait until lunch. Thanks for another amazing recipe!

  24. Delish! I’ve never had a homemade sauce turn out so perfect! Thanks for a great recipe! I’ll be making this over and over again.

  25. made it for dinner tonight. total hit. my fiance actually ate more than half of the recipe. there went my plans for leftovers for both of our lunches!

  26. This was a keeper! I like making my own sauces rather than using a “cream of” soup. And the chicken broth trick really does add flavor without a lot of calories. My whole family loved it. We used cheddar instead of parmesan, but next time I may try it as written.

  27. I made this tonight for dinner and it was excellent! Thank you so much! I used canned chicken and panko bread crumbs. Delicious!

  28. I made this for dinner last night. After having it for dinner, lunch, and dinner again tonight because it was sooo good, it is gone. In one day. Yum :o) Thanks for the great recipe!

  29. Would it be possible to make this a day ahead, leave it in the fridge overnight, then add the breadcrumbs right before baking the next day? Let me know your thoughts! Thanks!

    1. Probably- but the sauce will definitely thicken in the fridge. I would stir it up again before baking and maybe add a little milk or broth to thin the sauce out a bit before you top it.

  30. I printed this off last week and got all the ingredients for it. I just madet his last night and it was delicious. I told everybody about it and encouraged them to try it out.

  31. Just wanted to say that we do gluten free here and this came out awesome with Tinkyada Rice Pasta, Rice breadcrumbs topping, Pamela’s Baking and Pancake Mix (gluten free flour substitute), and even used almond milk instead.

    My naughtiest ingredient was the butter and the Parmesan cheese. 🙂

  32. Just ate this. Very yummy and comfort foody. haha One complaint. It was WAYYYYY too salty. I swear I followed the recipe exactly. I think it was the other 1/2 cup of parmesan sprinkled on top. Next time, I will leave that off. Otherwise, it was very good!

    1. Did you use kosher salt? There’s only 1/4 teaspoon in there, so there are a lot of variables here that could add extra salt depending on the brands that you use (chicken stock, parmesan, tuna, etc.) Glad you still liked it!

  33. I made this for dinner tonight. After the sauce was done, I took a taste and thought I had maybe died and gone to heaven! The lemon and dill combo is delicious! I mixed it all together, baked, but when I took my first bite, I really couldn’t taste the sauce at all. It was a little dry, not rich and creamy like I was hoping. Suggestions? I really want to make this again because the sauce was just so good. Maybe cook for less time? Or just pour the sauce straight over the noodles and eatthat way?

  34. I just made this tonight. I haven’t tried tuna noodle casserole since I was a lot younger when I had a bad experience with tuna helper at a friend’s house! (Ewww!) So my husband requested some tuna noodle casserole and he even asked if you girls had a recipe for it. I remembered seeing it in your cookbook so I made it and it was very good! I will definitely be making it again! Thanks for helping me overcome my fear of tuna noodle casserole! Lol

  35. I love this recipe and make it often. I like to add carrots and kale or spinach, too. I’ve made it several times, but tonight my 5-year-old says, “This is actually good.” Thanks, Luke! They all had seconds. Yay! Thanks for all the great recipes!

  36. My husband has been asking for a Tuna Noodle Casserole for dinner for Lent. I was leery of making any tuna noodle because I have never been a fan. I made this tonight, it was good, easy to make, and a hit with both my husband and his picky eater 13 y/o. Thanks, Sara for a great recipe. I can’t wait to try more!

  37. Made this tonight and I’d have to say this is the best tuna noodle casserole I’ve made in a long time! I love that the sauce is homemade and not a can of “cream of” soup. I put french fried onions on top instead of chips/crackers – love the french fried onions on this!! (May need to cover with foil next time for the last 10-15 min so they don’t get super dark/burnt though)

  38. Well I left out the mushrooms because my family would not try it if they saw mushrooms and I did sneak a little “regular” cheese in for old times sake. It was very good. Everyone enjoyed it. 2 of us even had seconds. Creamy and warm and just what you want on a chilly, windy day. I’ll make it again for sure -with mushrooms next time.

  39. Thank you! This is an awesome recipe! (I had some fresh lemon thyme so subbed in for dill, which worked great with the lemon in the sauce) So so good and perfect for this snowy Wednesday evening! I stumbled across your site, will be back!

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