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. 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 …..

  2. 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.

  3. 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!

  4. 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!

  5. 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.

  6. 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!

  7. 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.

  8. 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?

  9. 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.

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