A Tuna Melt is a diner classic, with flavorful tuna fish salad, fresh sliced tomatoes and melted cheddar cheese all served on toasted bread. With just the right amounts of crunchy, creamy and tangy, this toasty tuna sandwich is literally melt in your mouth delicious!
I’ve always been a huge fan of tuna salad. It’s a childhood favorite, and something my mom would make anytime we had a picnic. We’d mix up the tuna fish with some mayo, pickle relish and celery and spread it on soft wheat bread. Potato chips were of course the perfect accompaniment. I can still taste that first bite!
It wasn’t until I got a little older that I realized there is more than one way to make a tuna sandwich. I’ve made Tuna Salad Lettuce Wraps and lately I’ve become obsessed with the classic Tuna Melt.
What is a Tuna Melt?
A Tuna Melt is a classic sandwich often found on diner and cafe menus. It’s a mashup of of a grilled cheese sandwich and tuna salad that was accidentally created in the 1960s when some tuna salad spilled onto a grilled cheese being prepped on a the grill of a lunch counter at Woolworth’s.
The creamy tuna salad with mayo, pickle relish, celery, lemon juice and herbs and it’s layered with slices of fresh tomato and cheddar cheese. The sandwich can be baked and serve open faced or grilled in a skillet on the stove, like a grilled cheese.
Mayo Versus Butter for Grilled Sandwiches
Using mayo instead of butter on the bread is a chef’s trick we use for a few reasons:
It has a higher smoke point than butter so your chances of burning the bread are slim.
The bread gets crispy without completely melting the tuna salad inside. Your tuna melt won’t spill out all over the skillet.
The proteins in the eggs (a main ingredient of mayonnaise) also helps to crisp the exterior.
An added bonus, mayo is much easier to spread than mayo.
Mayo doesn’t add the same flavor as butter, so you are welcome to swap it for butter on your tuna melt if you wish. Just be sure to watch closely and adjust the heat so it doesn’t burn.
How to Make a Tuna Melt Sandwich
Prep ingredients. In a medium size bowl combine tuna salad ingredients. This is the recipe we use for the salad, but you can adjust the ingredients to your liking. Slice the tomatoes and separate cheese slices and set aside. You can use cheddar or American or get fancy with some mozzarella or jack cheese. Pepper Jack is super tasty and adds a little heat.
Heat the skillet and prep the bread. While the skillet is heating, spread mayo on one side of each slice of bread. Place two slices, mayo side down, in the skillet. The bread should fit without touching; if your skillet is small I recommend grilling just one sandwich at a time.
Cook and serve. Top each slice with a scoop of tuna salad, sliced tomatoes and cheese. Place another slice of bread, mayo side up, on top. Grill for several minutes per side or until your bread is nice and toasty and the cheese is melted. Let cool for several minutes before slicing in half and serving.
How to Bake a Tuna Melt in the Oven
If you don’t want to grill your sandwich in a skillet, you can bake it in the oven. Cover a baking sheet with parchment paper and assemble your sandwiches on it. Bake in a 400 degree oven for about 8 minutes, or until bread is golden and cheese is melted.
A classic sandwich deserves a classic side. Serve your tuna melts with some potato chips and a dill pickle slice and don’t forget some cute sandwich picks to hold your melts together! If you want to get a little fancier with your sides, try our classic Macaroni Salad or Baked French Fries.
Tuna Melt Sandwich Variations
Sprinkle little grated parmesan and garlic salt over the mayo for a garlic bread tuna melt.
Add sone heat with diced jalapeños in the tuna salad.
Play around with the cheese, using any of your favorite melty cheeses like jack, pepper jack, mozzarella or even fontina or gruyere.
Add bacon and avocado slices for a club sandwich style tuna melt. Because bacon makes everything better.
In a medium mixing bowl, combine the mayonnaise, lemon juice, dill and chives. Stir in the tuna, pickle relish and celery, using a fork to break up chunks of tuna.
Heat a large skillet on the stove over medium heat.
Spread a thin layer of mayonnaise on one side of each slice of bread. Place two slices, mayo side down, into the hot skillet.
Divide the tuna onto the two slices of bread and top with sliced tomatoes and cheese. Top with the other two slices of bread, mayo side up.
Grill for several minutes or until golden brown. Carefully flip with a large spatula and grill the other side until golden. Transfer to a cutting board and let rest for at least 5 minutes before serving.
Makes 2 sandwiches and can easily be double or tripled to make as many as you need.
Sandwiches are pretty filling and could also be divided to feed 4.
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Kristin Maxwell is the creator and main recipe developer, writer, and photographer of Yellow Bliss Road. A self-taught cook and self-appointed foodie, she specializes in easy, flavorful and approachable recipes for any home cook.