Appetizers / Entrees / Holiday Recipes

Tuna Cakes & Herb Tartar Sauce: Making Magic Out of Canned Tuna Fish

tuna cakes


Canned tuna fish generally conjures up images of white bread tuna sandwiches cut into triangles or maybe, if you were cash-strapped, like I was in college, the scent of tinny tuna eaten plain and straight from the can.  No matter your story, I’m certain everyone has had their fair shared of canned tuna encounters.  While it might not be the most glamorous food in the world, unless of course it’s that sexy, oily Spanish tuna in a can, good old American canned tuna can be an affordable and versatile pantry staple.

Growing up, my mother used to make something she called, albondigas.  The Spanish translation for albondiga is a small meatball, but my mother used it to refer to the small cakes or patties she made out of mashed potatoes, canned tuna fish and dried shrimp powder.  She only made them during the Lenten season, as we were a Catholic household and refrained from eating meat on Fridays.  Their taste was unlike anything else she ever made during the rest of the year, and certainly far from any soggy tuna fish sandwich most kids come to loathe lying limp at the bottom of their lunch bags.  These little patties were salty and crisp and colorful from the specs of chopped cilantro inside.  Sizzling in a pan of hot oil, these albondigas transformed our everyday into something special and marked a tradition and time of year when the calendar signaled for reflection and renewal.  They are one of my mother’s favorite recipes I like to make and I’ve since adapted the recipe to suit my tastes and ingredient availability, but the canned tuna fish is always ever present.  Since canned tuna is always available, I make these anytime of the year when I just need something a little different.

When people tell me they can’t afford seafood, I suggest this recipe.  While it’s not quite the salmon fillet some may dream of, it’s just as good or even better than that $40 crab cake plate at your local restaurant and you can easily make it at home.  Rest assured, this is one recipe worth dusting off those cans of tuna hiding near the back of your pantry.


tuna cakes

Tuna Cakes & Herb Tartar Sauce


For the tuna cakes

3 large russet potatoes, (2 1/2 cups mashed)
2 cans tuna fish, drained
1 package fresh dill, (4 sprigs reserved for sauce)
1 small bunch cilantro, stems removed, about 1/4 cup chopped
3 green onions, thinly sliced
1/2 teaspoon garlic, minced
1 teaspoon lemon zest
2 teaspoons lemon juice
3 large eggs
Kosher salt and black pepper to taste
2 Tablespoons olive or canola oil
Pan spray

Yields 8 patties

For the herb tartar sauce

2 Tablespoons sour cream
1/4 cup mayonnaise
2 Tablespoons capers
1/2 dill pickle, about 3 Tablespoons, chopped
1/2 teaspoon garlic, minced
2 teaspoons fresh dill, chopped
1 Tablespoon cilantro, chopped
1 teaspoon lemon zest
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon horseradish cream* optional
Kosher salt and black pepper to taste

Yields 3/4 cup tartar

4 total servings (2 cakes per person)

tuna cakes

Cooking Notes

This is a great way to use up pantry staples like canned tuna fish and leftover mashed potatoes.  Just remember, if using leftover mashed potatoes, be sure to use a batch that hasn’t been overly seasoned with other ingredients that would clash with the flavor of tuna, such as bacon or blue cheese.  Garlic roasted or parmesan mashed potatoes, on the other hand, would make a tasty addition.  If you prefer a little crunch to your tuna cake, you could also use up other pantry items like bread crumbs or panko, a Japanese form of bread crumb, and lightly coat these in breading prior to browning and finishing off in the oven.


Scrub and rinse potatoes and place in a medium stock pot submerged in cold water.  Cover with a lid and place pot on a burner over high heat until boiling.  Reduce heat to medium and simmer potatoes for another 20 minutes or until you can easily pierce potatoes with a paring knife.  Drain and place in the refrigerator until cool enough to peel.  When ready, peel and mash and add to the tuna mixture.

In a large bowl, add drained tuna, herbs, onions and garlic and 1 teaspoon lemon zest and 2 teaspoons lemon juice.   Stir in mashed potatoes.  Season the mixture with salt and pepper, (I usually begin with about 1/2 teaspoon of each) and once to your liking, mix in eggs.  The mixture will be soft and slightly wet.

Using a 1/3 measuring cup, shape patties out of the mixture and place onto a lightly sprayed baking sheet.  Once all the cakes are formed, place the baking sheet into the refrigerator and allow the patties to firm up.

Preheat the oven to 400°.  In a food processor, pulse all the ingredients for the tartar.  Season and set aside until ready to serve.

tuna cakes

In a large non-stick or cast iron skillet, over medium heat, add 2 Tablespoons of oil.  Allow pan and oil to warm before searing cakes on each side, about 3 minutes until golden.  Cakes should sizzle when they hit the pan but not burn.  Wipe out pan with a paper towel in between searing all the cakes to remove any charred bits that could affect the flavor of remaining cakes. If sticking, use a little more oil.  Place back onto a lightly sprayed baking sheet, or directly into the oven if using a cast iron pan.  Bake until edges are no longer wet and soft, and cake is firm to the touch, about 8-10 minutes.  Serve warm with a dollop of herb tartar sauce.

tuna cakes

15 thoughts on “Tuna Cakes & Herb Tartar Sauce: Making Magic Out of Canned Tuna Fish

  1. I love tuna cakes! My mom used to make a version of this for us during Lent too, and I make them this time year too. The kids love them! Thanks for sharing, I will try this version.

  2. I am a tuna fan and this recipe looks so good! I love the fresh herbs. Don’t you just love mom-food memories? I adore them. 🙂

    • Hey, thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment, Phill! These are one of my favorites. Definitely a great way to use of some of those pantry staples and create something tasty without a lot of fuss:)

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