Today we have a super quick “non recipe” for you: mousse di tonno or Tunafish Mousse. It involves no cooking at all and, assuming you have a food processor, takes practically no time at all to whip up. And it’s perfectly delicious.
To make mousse di tonno, you simply purée canned tunafish together with a spreadable dairy product, the most “old school”—and in my opinion still the best—option being softened butter. But you can also opt for a spreadable cheese like cream cheese or mascarpone, or ricotta. A few anchovies and capers usually go in, too, for extra umami, sometimes a few drops of lemon juice for brightness. That’s literally all there is to it. Calculate five minutes prep if you’re taking your time. Two minutes is probably more like it, including the trip to the pantry to fetch the ingredients.
Mousse di tonno is incredibly versatile, too. It’s usually classified as an antipasto, but I like to keep some on hand in my fridge—it keeps for at least a week—for times when I’m feeling a bit peckish and want something to nibble on as a snack or with drinks before dinner. Just let your mousse come back to room temperature, then serve it with toasted bread, crackers or crudités. Or if you want a more elegant presentation, you can use mousse di tonno to fill vol-au-vent or to make canapés. And you can even use it in some cooked preparations (see Notes below for details).
In short, mousse di tonno is a kind of culinary ace in your back pocket. It’s definitely worth including in your repertoire!
- 1 large (200g/7oz) can tunafish packed in olive oil, about 150g/2 oz when drained
- 100g (3-1/2 oz) butter brought to room temperature until soft (or mascarpone, cream cheese or ricotta)
- 1-2 anchovy fillets
- 1 Tb capers, rinsed and dried
- A few drops of freshly squeezed lemon juice, to taste (optional)
Drain the tunafish of its oil and add to the bowl of a food processor, along with the softened butter (or mascarpone, cream cheese or ricotta), anchovy, capers and, if using, a few drops of lemon juice.
Process until smooth and fluffy.
Serve at room temperature.
Making mousse di tonno is stupidly simple, more of a technique than a proper recipe. But there are a few things to look out for. Perhaps most important, if you’re using butter that’s been in the fridge, make sure to let it return to room temperature so it is soft enough to purée properly. This will take a while, 45-60 minutes. And when it comes to processing, take some time with it. Not a lot, but more than you might think. At first, you’ll get a rather rough mixture, which is not what you want. You should keep processing until you get perfectly smooth, creamy and fluffy purée as pictured above.
Choosing the Right Ingredients
As with any no cook dish like this, the quality of the ingredients will be directly reflected in the end product. The tuna, of course, is the most crucial, and if you wanted to splurge on top quality Italian or Spanish tuna, you’ll be richly rewarded. Having said that, any decent quality tuna, so long as it’s packed in olive oil, will do just fine. Cultured butter will provide better flavor than the regular aka ‘sweet’ type. I’m fond of Irish butter, which is quite reasonably priced as compared with other European butters sold here in the US.
As mentioned in last week’s post, hand dipped ricotta is wonderful if you can find and afford it. And as for the cream cheese, good old Philadelphia brand is still the best in my opinion, and the one you’d coincidentally find in Italy. (Indeed, Italians will call any cream cheese formaggio Philadelphia, or “Philadelphia cheese”.)
Butter or Spreadable Cheese?
Which dairy product is best? I did some taste testing so you don’t need to, and here are my (admittedly highly subjective) impressions, in the order of preference:
- Butter. The classic and still the best choice by far if you ask me. Butter gives the mousse a beautifully creamy texture—ironically even creamier than cream cheese—and, of course, a lovely buttery flavor. It even had the most appealing golden hue. If you’re using butter, you can use less than indicated above, perhaps in a 1:2 ratio to the drained tuna by weight. Some recipes, like the one in Marcella Hazan’s 1986 Marcella’s Italian Kitchen, reduce it even further, using only 1:3. A good thing since butter is the most calorie dense option at 717 calories for each 100g. The other drawback is that butter hardens when chilled so if you keep it in the fridge, you’ll need at least 45 minutes to bring it back to its proper texture, making it less suitable for last minute use.
- Cream cheese or mascarpone. These two came in tied for second in my taste test. Both provided a nice, creamy texture, though surprisingly not as creamy as the butter. They tasted quite similar, although the cream cheese provided a slightly milder flavor than the mascarpone, which had a bit of a tang to it. If you can find it, whipped cream cheese works very well in this dish. These options, especially the mascarpone, made for the lightest colored mousse, almost white. These options are also lighter than butter in calories. Cream cheese has 342 calories per 100g, mascarpone 435 calories.
- Ricotta. A definite “meh” in my book. I considered not even including it in this post, but it’s so common in recipes for mousse di tonno I though I should, if only to warn your off it. The texture of the mousse is rather dense and grainy, not terribly appealing if you ask me. And the taste is rather bland. If you do use ricotta, you should add the optional lemon juice. It will brighten the flavor and lighten the texture. One advantage: this is the most ‘dietetic’ option, as 100g of ricotta has only 174 calories.
Recipes vary wildly as to the amount of dairy, but most recipes call for less dairy by weight than tuna. I found that, with the exception of the butter, you can’t go lower than a 1:2 ratio. Otherwise, the texture of the mousse will suffer. But you can definitely increase the dairy to tuna ratio to 1:1 by weight, or even more if you want to ‘stretch’ the tuna or just want a milder tasting mousse.
Additional ingredients sometimes crop up in recipes for mousse di tonno. A few spoonfuls of mayo along with the butter, which I assume is there to lend some extra ‘silkyness’, or Greek yoghurt mixed with the cream cheese, to give just two examples.
Obviously there’s a lot you can do to play around with the flavorings, beyond the standard anchovy and caper. I’ve seen Italian recipes calling for chopped olives, lemon zest and oregano. I even saw one recipe from a major US-based website that calls for balsamic vinegar and soy sauce. Eww. Che schifo!, as the Italians would say…
Most classic is toasted bread, especially sliced baguettes, but crackers will also do the job. And if you’re eating low carb, then sliced carrots, celery, radishes and other crudités make for a nice change. You can also use mousse di tonno to fill a vol-au-vent. Garnish if you like with a bit of tomato, an olive, a curled up anchovy fillet, capers, pimentos, salmon roe… the sky’s the limit.
Besides doing duty as a dip or spread, mousse di tonno also makes for a really lovely no cook pasta sauce. Just place some in the bottom of a pre-heated bowl, pour in well-drained cooked pasta (short shapes like penne or shells work best) and mix vigorously, adding a bit of the pasta water if needed. Mousse di tonno also makes for a nice filling for a savory zeppole in lieu of the usual anchovy.
Mousse di tonno
- 1 large can tunafish packed in olive oil about 150g/2 oz when drained
- 100 3-1/2 oz butter brought to room temperature until soft (or mascarpone, cream cheese or ricotta)
- 1-2 anchovy fillets
- 1 Tb capers rinsed and dried
- A few drops of freshly squeezed lemon juice, to taste optional
- Drain the tunafish of its oil and add to the bowl of a food processor, along with the softened butter (or mascarpone, cream cheese or ricotta), anchovy, capers and, if using, a few drops of lemon juice.
- Process until smooth and fluffy.
- Serve at room temperature.
What a fantastic recipe! The mousse di tonno sounds incredibly easy and quick to make, with the added bonus of being incredibly versatile. I love that it can be served as an antipasto, snack, or even used in cooking. It’s great to have a delicious recipe like this in one’s back pocket, especially when you’re short on time or looking for a quick snack. Thank you for sharing!
You’re welcome! 🙂
Having read the comments, I will give the butter a try the next time I make it!
Do give it a try and let us know what you think. I like it much better than ricotta but to each his/her own…
Thank you – simple but so yummy! I used ricotta and can’t imagine it would be nicer with anything else! A bit of dill thrown in gave it a lovely flavour – I am going to have it tonight with carrot sticks – looking forward to it already! (its 8.a.m now!)
Versatile is the perfect word for this. I love the idea of using it on pasta, but I can also imagine it would make an incredible sandwich with roasted peppers.
That’s a great idea, David. This would indeed make a great sandwich spread. Nice change from tuna salad (although I do like myself a good tuna salad once in a while.)
Interesting notes about the butter vs. cream cheese/mascarpone vs. ricotta. At first glance, I would’ve thought the ricotta would have been a good option here. However, I absolutely see your points – thanks for steering me away from that direction. This sounds like it would be great spread on a wheat cracker! My aunt and uncle actually make something similar using turkey around Thanksgiving. It sounds odd, but it’s quite tasty as an appetizer!
I was surprised that the ricotta wasn’t more appealing. It’s a very common option in more contemporary recipes, probably the most common in fact. I guess it’s considered healthier. But I really think butter is far superior when it comes to flavor and texture. But maybe I should give it another try with some really excellent ricotta.
Interesting to hear about turkey mousse—I can actually see that working well. After all, duck rillettes are fantastic.
Ciao Frank! A number of years ago I came across this in Joyce Goldstein’s “Enoteca” book. I was skeptical at first…but must admit, not only is it “dead-easy” to put together but very, very tasty. And I have to agree…butter is absolutely the best thing to use! Thanks for the tip about cultured butter! I adore the stuff but never thought of using it when making the mousse!
Ciao Phyllis! I can see why you may have been skeptical at first. This isn’t a dish that shouts its deliciousness. In fact, perhaps it doesn’t look like much. But when you taste it… ! Thanks so much for stopping by.
What a simple yet perfect idea! I love tuna and this one is for sure for me to try soon.
Thanks, Angie! Hope you like it.
What a simple yet perfect idea! I love tuna and this is definitely another one for me to try soon!
this sounds so delicious! I love tuna!
You and me both, Sherry!
Amazing what you can do with a humble tin of tuna. I like making a cheats tuna lasagne when I’m short of time.
Very true, Tandy!
I like the combination of all the ingredients. I can imagine the flavor.
It’s a winner, Gerlinde. Definitely worth a try!
Have never heard or thought of this lovely creation, but I’m sure I’d love it using a good tuna! Regarding cream cheese, I used to think Philadelphia was the best until I tasted Arla cream cheese. My mother bought it in Michigan and I thought I’d died and gone to cream cheese heaven! I contacted the company several times to find out where I could purchase it in CA, to no avail! Now, I’ve discovered it is no longer sold in the US. Go figure! If you ever see it, grab it, Frank. I’m sure you’d feel the same!
Interesting! I’ve never heard of Arla cream cheese. Seems it used to be available online but alas, not any more… But I’ll be on the lookout.
How delightful and how delightfully simple! This ‘variation on the theme’ will immediately be put to use as part of my next breakfast – the mousse ending up on grainy bread alongside a big mug of black coffee! Never mind waiting for friends! The anchovies and capers naturally will make the difference . . . thanks heaps for the great idea !!!
Sounds lovely, Eha! Hope you enjoy it. 🙂
Another great post Frank! I love mousse di tonno. Interestingly, I haven’t made it with butter! I’ve made tuna tapenade with butter and green olives but not the Italian mousse. I think it was the Cucchiaio d’Argento’s recipe that I used and they suggest ricotta. I loved it but I’ll have to try the butter next time.
Do try the butter, Tina, I think you’d love it. Personally, as mentioned in the notes, I find it much tastier than ricotta.
It’s a nice little something that I like to put out when friends come over for a glass of wine before we all go out to a restaurant for dinner.
Yep, that’s a perfect way to enjoy this neat little morsel. 🙂
This looks and sounds absolutely delicious. As Mi Mi does, I usually use salmon or smoked salmon but I venture the taste of the tuna would be more refined and not as forward as the salmon. I wonder if you can process it by hand? We’ll be travelling through Europe and this sounds like a really easy and tasty recipe for cocktails. I might even try a very ripe avocado instead of the butter. Thanks Frank, another great recipe.
Yes, this has a lovely mild flavor, especially if you opt for butter. As for processing by hand, I’ve never tried but why not? Vigorous stirring with a whisk or wooden spoon, then passing it through a sieve, should give a very similar result. But you’ll need a strong arm for the job!
That’s my workout these days.
Fabulous idea. I usually use smoked trout and salmon for this kind of preparation. But I always have good jarred tuna on hand so I can’t wait to make this!
Hope you like it, Mimi! It’s a lovely flavor combination, although I also love smoked trout and salmon.
Delicious and similar in style to a smoked mackerel pâté. It’s interesting you mentioned Irish butter. I’ve noticed great American interest in Kerrygold (on the web) over the last couple of years. Personally, I can’t tell the difference between British butter and Kerrygold – it’s the normal taste and texture in the UK, where Kerrygold sits next to Anchor, Country Life and other butters (in the supermarkets), for the same price.
Yes, Kerrygold has taken the US market by storm. And for good reason, since it is an excellent butter (in my opinion) for a very reasonable price. Most butter produced here in the US is “sweet” (i.e. it hasn’t been cultured) and has less butterfat than European butters. Fine for cooking, less fine for eating and in no cook recipes. The other European butters that you can find here, mostly from France and Italy, are quite a bit more expensive. As far as I’m aware there’s only one UK brand of butter you can find here, made from Devon cream, which is very expensive indeed.
Aside from small producers making organic British butter, most brands are priced competitively.
I would have never of thought of just using a can of tuna to make a mousse. It’s just so easy. I love this recipe and can’t wait to try it out. It does remind me a little of a trout pate I get from a friend here in Scotland who catches his own trout. But as I can’t always get that, I can try this instead. Thanks Frank!
You’re welcome, Neil! And thanks for your comment. This really is genius in its simplicity, like a lot of Italian cookery. And I can certainly imagine the same technique working for all sorts of other fish, canned or otherwise.