Summer Tomato Tonnato Salad Recipe

You say tomato, I say tonnato: This simple no-cook salad combines peak summer tomatoes and Italian tonnato (tuna sauce).

Tomato tonnato salad on a plate.

Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

Why It Works

  • An immersion blender makes quick work of the creamy mayonnaise-based emulsion for tonnato sauce.
  • Resisting the urge to over-blend the tonnato prevents it from becoming grainy.
  • Spicy Calabrian chiles and nutty toasted black sesame seeds balance out the sweet acidity of summer tomatoes.

"What came first, the dish or the pun?" I've been asked this existential question more than a few times by head-shaking loved ones, coworkers, and chef mentors. It's no secret that I'm into groan-inducing wordplay, which has always ended up working its way into my recipe-development process.

From the first time I was allowed to get creative in a restaurant kitchen—tasked with producing a constantly rotating selection of amuse-bouches, I was always bringing the chef bites like "France on a log" (Chartreuse-compressed celery, foie gras mousse, and pickled currants) to taste—puns have been a part of my cooking. This is my chicken-or-the-egg question.

While the dumb jokes that entertain me may not have improved in the years since then, my approach to cooking has matured a little. As a young cook, I would sometimes fall in love with an idea for a dish or bite that I thought was clever, then get stuck forcing the issue, even when the food didn't live up to the pun (a pretty low bar).

I've learned how to part with those, but also how to tease out, tinker with, and improve on the ideas worth exploring, like oysters Oaxacafeller and this late-summer celebration of in-season tomatoes: tomato tonnato. What started out as a pun I jotted down in a notebook years ago turned into two killer, no-cook tomato salads that are pretty easy on the eyes, and come together in just about 15 minutes. This salad with traditional tonnato features tomatoes at their peak, and this variation raises the heat level with a spicy tonnato.

'Tis the Season: Eat All the Tomatoes While You Still Can

Overhead view of a tray of whole tomatoes of different sizes and colors.

Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

Tomato season is the best micro-season of summer. For a few glorious weeks, gardens and farmers' markets are overflowing with gorgeous conventional and heirloom varieties of different shapes, colors, and sizes.

Sometimes in summer, I'll wake up extra early two to three times a week in order to hit up the Union Square Greenmarket on my way to work. I always end up leaving with a giant haul of tomatoes, even when I don't have a plan for what to do with them. They're just too pretty and tasty to pass up, and there's also my anxiety about the inescapable passage of time and the looming presence of pumpkin-spice season in the future.

Needless to say, we're going to have to eat all the tomatoes we can in order to get through this.

Closeup overhead of a tray of tomatoes of different colors and sizes.

Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

Between perfect BLTs, fresh-tomato sauce, and panzanella salad, there's no shortage of things to make with armfuls of summer tomatoes. But all of those involve heating stuff up in the kitchen, and that's not always a good thing in the middle of August.

Overhead of tomato salad with spicy tonnato sauce, green and purple basil, and black sesame seeds.

Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

I can always slather a piece of good bread with mayo and pile some thick slices of sea salt–studded tomatoes on top for a snack. But sometimes I want to put together a more elegant dish that still doesn't involve much effort beyond going to the market to pick up vegetables.

This tomato tonnato salad hits that mark perfectly. It combines the elements of a great tuna sandwich—oil-packed tuna, mayonnaise, and tomatoes—and turns them into a shareable salad that's ready for the 'gram.

How to Make Tonnato

Closeup side view of tomato salad with tonnato sauce, green and purple basil, Calabrian chiles, and black sesame seeds.

Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

A few years back, Daniel took on the unenviable task of trying to convince readers who might have been unfamiliar with Italian vitello tonnato that chilled roast meat slathered with a pourable tuna-mayonnaise sauce is delicious, and worth making. It's a tough sell.

Yet here I am, trying to make tonnato happen. Tuna and tomatoes are a more appealing pairing for a lot of people, and much progress has been made by the tonnato lobby in the States over the past couple of years.

How to Make Traditional Tonnato the Nontraditional Way

I started out by making Daniel's version of tonnato, which in turn uses Kenji's two-minute mayonnaise method (it's like a game of Serious Eats recipe telephone). It's a dead-simple and super-fast way to make tonnato, in an amount that makes sense for home cooks.

Photo collage of blending tonnato sauce base in a tall-sided container with an immersion blender to form mayonnaise.

Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

Combine a whole egg; a touch of mustard (not strictly traditional for tonnato, but mustard is an excellent surfactant that helps form a stable mayo emulsion); capers; anchovies; and lemon juice in the beaker that came with your immersion blender. (Other tall-sided containers that just fit the head of your immersion blender will work, but make sure that the blades can get down to the very bottom of the container.)

Then top it all off with some vegetable oil. Fire up the blender, and you've got mayonnaise in about 30 seconds.

Stop the blender to add some high-quality oil-packed tuna, along with a little more lemon juice, and blend it up just until the tuna is incorporated into a homogeneous, smooth sauce.

You may be tempted to buzz this mixture for a while, with the idea that more blending will lead to a smoother sauce. It won't. Over-blending the sauce can actually make it chalky and grainy, as the tuna turns gritty. Blending the tonnato less means that it won't be perfectly smooth, but it will have a more pleasant texture than it would if you blitzed it to hell.

Once the tuna is well incorporated, transfer the mixture to a mixing bowl, and whisk in olive oil by hand. Congratulations! You have successfully made traditional tonnato.

If you like the sound of an extra-lemony tuna sauce to pair with fresh tomatoes, this is a great option for tomato salad–making.

Overhead of tomato salad with tonnato sauce, green and purple basil, Calabrian chiles, and black sesame seeds.

Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

Spoon it onto a serving plate, and spread it into an even layer. Cut a bunch of tomatoes into different shapes and sizes, and arrange them as artfully as you like over the tonnato.

You'll want something spicy here, too, to balance the citrus punch of the tonnato and the sweetness of the tomatoes. In this case, I turn to one of my favorite condiments, preserved Calabrian chiles, which I spoon over the tomatoes. I also add toasted black sesame seeds, for a nutty, slightly bitter crunch.

Closeup overhead of tomato salad with tonnato sauce, green and purple basil, Calabrian chiles, and black sesame seeds.

Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

A sprinkling of coarse sea salt right before the dish hits the table ensures that the tomatoes don't give up their texture and juiciness before you bite into them, while also providing a little extra textural contrast. Finish the dish off with a showering of fresh basil leaves.

August 2019

Recipe Facts

Active: 15 mins
Total: 15 mins
Serves: 4 servings

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Ingredients

For the Tonnato:

  • 1 large egg

  • 1/4 cup (60ml) fresh lemon juice (from 2 whole lemons), divided

  • anchovy fillets (about 1/4 ounce; 7g)

  • 1 teaspoon (5ml) Dijon mustard

  • 1 teaspoon (5g) capers, drained

  • 1/2 cup (120ml) vegetable oil

  • 4 ounces (113g) oil-packed tuna, such as Ortiz, drained

  • 1/2 cup (120ml) extra-virgin olive oil

  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the Salad:

  • 2 pounds (900g) mixed ripe tomatoes (see notes)

  • 2 tablespoons (30g) chopped Calabrian chiles

  • Toasted black sesame seeds and coarse sea salt, for serving (optional)

  • 15 to 20 fresh basil leaves, large leaves torn and small leaves left whole

Directions

  1. For the Tonnato: Place egg, 2 tablespoons (30ml) lemon juice, anchovies, mustard, and capers in the bottom of an immersion blender cup or another tall-sided container that just fits the head of your immersion blender. Pour vegetable oil on top and allow to settle for 15 seconds. Place head of immersion blender at bottom of cup and turn it on high speed. Do not pulse or move the head. As mayonnaise forms, slowly tilt and lift the head of the immersion blender until all oil is emulsified; this should take between 30 and 45 seconds.

    Blending tonnato base to form a mayonnaise.

    Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

  2. Turn off blender and remove from blender cup. Scrape down sides of cup using a rubber spatula, then add tuna and remaining 2 tablespoons (30ml) lemon juice. Return blender head to blender cup and blend just until tuna is thoroughly incorporated into a smooth sauce, 15 to 30 seconds. Avoid over-blending, as this can cause the sauce to become grainy.

    Photo collage of canned tuna and lemon juice being blended into mayonnaise to form tonnato sauce.

    Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

  3. Transfer sauce to a medium mixing bowl and slowly drizzle in olive oil while whisking constantly to emulsify. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Refrigerate sauce until ready to serve.

    Side view of whisking olive oil into tonnato sauce.

    Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

  4. For the Salad: Using a sharp chef's knife or serrated knife, cut tomatoes into an assortment of slices, wedges, and bite-size pieces.

  5. Using a large spoon, spread tonnato in an even layer on a large serving plate or individual serving plates. Arrange tomatoes on top of tonnato, then dollop with small spoonfuls of Calabrian chiles. Sprinkle sesame seeds and sea salt (if using) over tomatoes, followed by basil leaves. If not using sea salt, season tomatoes with kosher salt. Serve immediately.

Special Equipment

Immersion blender

Notes

This salad is meant to celebrate peak tomato season, and won't be nearly as good if made with out-of-season tomatoes. The amount of tomato for the salad can easily be adjusted to accommodate the number of people you are serving.

This recipe makes about 1 1/2 cups of tonnato, which will leave you with extra sauce if you're serving four people.

Make-Ahead and Storage

The salad is best enjoyed immediately. The tonnato can be made ahead and refrigerated in an airtight container for up to three days.

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Nutrition Facts (per serving)
622 Calories
60g Fat
11g Carbs
13g Protein
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Nutrition Facts
Servings: 4
Amount per serving
Calories 622
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 60g 77%
Saturated Fat 7g 34%
Cholesterol 61mg 20%
Sodium 488mg 21%
Total Carbohydrate 11g 4%
Dietary Fiber 3g 11%
Total Sugars 7g
Protein 13g
Vitamin C 48mg 239%
Calcium 42mg 3%
Iron 2mg 9%
Potassium 757mg 16%
*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.
(Nutrition information is calculated using an ingredient database and should be considered an estimate.)