The classic tuna noodle casserole, with the flavor volume turned up! A few simple tweaks take this iconic comfort food recipe from delicious to divine.
In my opinion, any saucy pasta recipe is the quintessential comfort food. Like macaroni and cheese. Or spaghetti and meatballs. Or what I most recently had a craving for (probably because of the cold and yucky weather)— tuna noodle casserole.
I developed this particular recipe last year while I was living and studying in Israel. It was around Thanksgiving-time, and I was craving all the classic Thanksgiving comfort foods. Like mashed potatoes, stuffing, butternut squash, and green bean casserole. However, people in Israel don’t really celebrate Thanksgiving because…well it’s an American holiday. All my friends were posting pictures of their Thanksgiving feasts, and I was sitting in a cold Israeli apartment eating falafel and pita.
To be honest, I wasn’t only missing the Thanksgiving food itself. I was missing the whole process of a Thanksgiving meal. The planning, shopping, table decorating, cooking all day for family and friends. I mean let’s be real, Thanksgiving is a holiday made for foodies like us.
So somehow in my Thanksgiving abroad blues, I decided I wanted to make tuna noodle casserole for all my roommates. I’m not sure of the exact connection between tuna noodle casserole and Thanksgiving. Maybe because it feels warm and comforting. Maybe because it’s an iconic American dish. Maybe because I topped it with French’s fried onions (although I now prefer a buttery cracker topping). Or, most likely, because our apartment kitchen was strictly “Dairy” so the classic turkey was out of the question. The dairy kitchen situation is a whole other story…don’t even get me started.
My favorite part about this recipe is that it’s 100% homemade. No cans of condensed soup. No cans at all actually! Something about standing over the stove and stirring the homemade cream sauce, followed by serving a big bubbly, scratch-made casserole to my roommates definitely filled my Thanksgiving void.
Now back to that creamy, scratch-made sauce coating the noodles, tuna, and veggies. It is unreal! Pure creamy and cheesy goodness. But truthfully, how could you go wrong? I dare to say that tuna noodle casserole always hits the spot . . . even if it’s just an average recipe. It’s hard to mess up with tuna, noodles, and a white sauce.
But who wants an average recipe?! I was on a mission to take my tuna noodle to the next level. No average version here. I wanted a recipe that doesn’t just please the 5 year old in me who will like anything ooey, gooey, hot, and cheesy (we all know we have that 5 year old in us), but it also pleases the 24 year old cook with a semi-refined palate.
Tips for how to take the classic tuna noodle casserole from good to glorious:
- Skip the cans– With just butter, flour, milk, and cheddar cheese, you can create your own béchamel sauce that is to die for. It’s thick. It’s rich. It’s cheesy. It’s way more luxurious than you could ever get from opening a can.
- Undercook your pasta– This is my number one secret for an elevated tuna noodle casserole. I cook the pasta 1-2 minutes less than the package instructions, which leaves you with a little bit of a bite still on the pasta. This gives the casserole some much-needed texture, since the rest of the ingredients are all fairly soft.
- Season each component– Such a crucial step that most recipes leave out! As you make each component of the casserole, you gotta add salt. When sautéing the onions and carrots, add salt. When boiling your pasta water, add salt. When making the béchamel, add salt. Otherwise, one unsalted component will bring down the whole dish. What a party pooper.
- Balance out the richness with acid– Another ingredient that most recipes leave out—acid! Life is all about balance right? To balance out the rich flavors, I add Dijon mustard, lemon juice, and a tiny bit of ketchup. Trust me on the ketchup. You won’t taste it, but it will add a touch of sweet and tangy flavor that only ketchup can.
Don’t get me wrong, this still tastes like the classic tuna noodle casserole. And your kids are still going to love this. Now you will love it even more too! These small tweaks will help enhance the flavor. The recipe isn’t transformed, it’s just the absolute best version of itself. Enjoy!
- 12 oz. dry penne pasta (I prefer whole wheat)
- 1 onion, diced
- 3 medium carrots, peeled and diced
- 1 cup frozen peas
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
- ¼ cup + 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 4 cups milk (not skim milk)
- 1 cup vegetarian chicken broth
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- ¼ teaspoon black pepper
- 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
- 1 teaspoons lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon ketchup
- 1½ cups shredded cheddar cheese
- 2 (5 ounce) cans albacore tuna, drained and flaked
- 20 buttery crackers (I use Ritz crackers)
- Flat leaf parsley (to garnish, optional)
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
- To cook the pasta: Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Salt the boiling water and add pasta. Cook for 1-2 minutes less than the package instructions. Drain pasta, stir in 1 Tbsp of butter, and set aside.
- While pasta is cooking: In a large pan, heat 1 Tbsp of butter over medium-high heat. Add the diced onion and saute until the edges start to brown, about 5 minutes. Add chopped carrots and cook for another 5 minutes. Add a couple pinches of salt. Clear a small hole in the center of the pan and add the minced garlic. Cook garlic until fragrant, stirring constantly to avoid burning (about 30-60 seconds). Stir in the frozen peas. Take off heat and set aside.
- In the same pot you cooked the pasta in, melt the remaining 4 Tbsp of butter over medium-high heat. Slowly sprinkle in the flour, whisking constantly to create a smooth paste. Cook for 1 minute while whisking.
- Slowly pour in the milk while continuing to whisk, making sure that no lumps form. Add in the chicken broth. Continue to cook and stir until it begins to thicken and just boil. Cook one more minute. Take off heat. Stir in salt, pepper, Dijon mustard, cheese, lemon juice, ketchup, cheddar cheese, and flaked tuna. Pour the noodles and vegetables into the sauce mixture and stir to coat completely.
- Grease a 9x13 baking dish with cooking spray and pour in the casserole. Sprinkle the top with crushed crackers.
- Bake in a 375 degree oven for 30 minutes, or until the casserole is hot and bubbly. Allow to cool for 5 minutes before serving. Garnish with flat leaf parsley if desired. Enjoy!