Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Tuna Noodle Casserole

Tuna Noodle Casserole on plate with broccoli, casserole dish in background

Corn Flakes Top this 1950s Classic

Many home cooks in the 1950s were mad for the new convenience foods — canned this or powdered that.  Although many of these items had become available earlier in the 20th century, they reached their zenith of popularity in the 50s. 

The 1950s were also the decade of casseroles.  “One-pot” recipes of the casserole persuasion have been around since mankind first invented cooking utensils, but people rediscovered them in the 1930s.  And eventually people realized that many of those swell convenience foods — condensed soup in particular — worked well in casserole assembly. 

Tuna Noodle Casserole was the quintessential 50s dish.  It required boxed noodles!  Canned soup!  Canned tuna!  Canned peas!  And a topping of boxed cereal!  How wonderful— you could make it without any fresh ingredients!  Convenient, no?

And amazingly enough, it was also a pretty good dish. 


Tuna Noodle Casserole on plate with broccoli, casserole dish in background

Recipe:  Tuna Noodle Casserole

In a nod to the post-Eisenhower era, my recipe uses frozen rather than canned peas.  (Frozen peas became standard once the freezer sections of home refrigerators became large enough to hold more than two ice cube trays and a half gallon of ice cream.)  Otherwise, my version doesn’t differ much from every other recipe you’ve seen.  I say a bit more on recipe variations in the Notes.

This dish takes about 15 minutes to assemble (including cooking the noodles) and 20 - 30 minutes to bake in the oven.  It serves 8 to 10.  You’ll need a casserole dish that measures about 9 x 13 inches. 

You can easily halve this recipe, although you’ll need to make a decision regarding the quantity of tuna to use (see Notes).  Leftovers keep for a couple of days refrigerated in an airtight container. 

Ingredients
  • 8 ounces dried egg noodles (narrow or wide; you can substitute another pasta shape if you wish, although noodles are traditional)
  • 1 tablespoon salt (for salting the noodle water)
  • 3 cups frozen peas
  • 4 cups corn flakes
  • ½ - 1 stick melted butter (½ stick works, but a whole stick has better flavor; isn’t the rule with butter that more is better?)
  • 3 five-ounce cans tuna (for best flavor, use oil packed; you can skimp and use only 2 cans, but the flavor isn’t as good)
  • 2 cans condensed cream of mushroom soup
  • ½ teaspoon garlic powder (may increase to a teaspoon; optional, but good)
  • ½ teaspoon onion powder (may increase to a teaspoon; optional, but good)
  • 1 cup milk (doesn’t matter what kind)
  • additional salt to taste
  • pepper to taste
 Procedure
  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Put large pot of water (at least 4 quarts) on to boil.  When it begins to boil, add a tablespoon of salt and the dried egg noodles.  Cook according to package directions (usually 6 - 8 minutes).  It’s better to undercook a bit than overcook (the noodles will continue to cook in the oven).  Two minutes before the pasta is ready, add the frozen peas to the pot so they’ll cook with the pasta.  Drain noodles and peas in a colander or strainer when cooked.
  3. While the pasta is cooking, melt the butter in the microwave.
  4. Pour the corn flakes into a bowl and crush until they’re breadcrumb size (it’s easiest to use your hands for this).  Add melted butter and stir well to combine.
  5. Open and drain tuna and add to a bowl.  Add cream of mushroom soup, garlic and onion powder (if using), and milk.  Stir to combine.  Taste, and add salt and pepper to your preference.
  6. By now the noodles and peas should be ready.  Drain in a colander or strainer (if you haven’t already done so) and add to the tuna and soup mixture.  Stir well.
  7. Pour into a casserole dish that’s been greased with butter or cooking spray.  Cover with the corn flakes and butter mixture.  
  8. Bake until the topping is well browned and the tuna mixture is hot and bubbly — about 20 to 30 minutes.
Tuna Noodle Casserole on plate with broccoli, casserole dish in background
Notes
  • A lot of people prefer to top their tuna noodle casserole with buttered bread crumbs or cracker crumbs rather than corn flakes.  It’s not the One True Way, but do so if you prefer.
  • Many people add cheese to this dish.  I never have, but I’ve read adding a cup or so of shredded cheddar to the tuna mix is good.  Some people dust the top of the casserole with grated Parmesan cheese.
  • A bit of cayenne added in Step 5 is nice, if you like some zing.
  • Likewise a bit of Worchestershire sauce (maybe a teaspoon or so).
  • The original recipe for this dish specified 2 cups of peas rather than three (in part because a can of peas held a bit under 2 cups).  But 3 works better IMO.
  • In 1903 — when canned tuna became widely distributed in the US — the “standard” size of a tuna can was 7 ounces.  In the last few decades, it has shrunk to 6 or so, and then 5.  Most older recipes that call for a “can of tuna” are specifying a significantly larger quantity than found in modern cans.  In the 50s the recipe for this dish specified 2 cans of tuna — but I’ve increased it to 3 because of the “downsizing” factor.
  • Which means you have a decision to make if you halve this recipe.  One 5-ounce can of tuna isn’t sufficient.  So I’d go with 2 cans — it’s a bit more tuna than traditional, but good.
Tuna Noodle Casserole on Black Acrylic

Worth a Trip to the Store

Casseroles practically defined the culinary habits of 1950s America.  Most of those recipes have faded away — largely because they just weren’t very good.  And they relied on ingredients that today we regard as less than healthy.

But two casseroles endure:  Green Bean Casserole (still a tradition on many Thanksgiving tables) and Tuna Noodle Casserole — which in my opinion is the best of the casserole class.  Even people who don’t care for fish tend to like it (and it’s convenient for those who observe dietary restrictions during Lent).

Back in the day, casseroles could be made at a moment’s notice.  Most households had all the ingredients on their pantry shelves (that was part of casseroles’ appeal).  Now?  Many of us probably have to make a trip to the store for at least some of the ingredients.

“When was the last time we had this?” Mrs. Kitchen Riffs asked as she polished off her second helping.  “I didn’t even know we had corn flakes and cream of mushroom soup in the house.”

“So long ago I’ve forgotten,” I said.  “The corn flakes are left over from when we made Cherry Winks. In fact, I made this dish because I wanted to use them up. The soup I bought last trip to the store.”

"We should make Cherry Winks more often,” she smiled.

You may also enjoy reading about:
Cherry Winks
Old-School Macaroni and Cheese
Tuna Pasta Salad
White Bean and Tuna Salad
Cheddar Cheese Chicken Curry

58 comments:

  1. We love tuna noodle casserole. I'm fact I'm almost embarrassed to say but I probably make it every week. I add spinach, and pimentos to mind but best of all you have to add French fried onion rings on top. OMG that makes the whole dish. I will definitely try your version. Thanks for sharing.

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  2. In my home state of Minnesota -- casseroles aren't casseroles, they're "hot dishes" but they still require canned mushroom soup. I haven't had one of these in years - but yes, "retro good"!

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  3. @Vicki, every week! I'm impressed. It's a great dish - and I don't know why I don't make it more. Probably because there's so much else to make. :-) I'll have to try the French fried onion rings - great idea.

    @Alanna, oh, I knew about the "hot dish" name - I used to live in Wisconsin, and some people there use that word for casseroles - but had totally forgotten it. Thanks for reminding me! And although totally retro, this is a great dish.

    @both, thanks for taking time to comment.

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  4. We had tuna noodle casserole every week when I was a kid. This fits into my Lent diet. One thing, and I know it's the food snob coming out, I can't do cream of xxx soup from a can, but homemade white sauce with mushrooms is really pretty easy.

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  5. Hi Denise, yup, a mushroom bechamel sauce would be great in this. Actually I thought about doing something along those lines - fresh mushrooms, bechamel, maybe fresh tuna. Of course the flavor wouldn't be quite the same, but then we could call it "gratin" instead of "casserole!" I may do post about that at some point. Thanks for commenting.

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  6. This was one of my favorite dishes! (Still is when I have the energy to re-create it sans you know what). Your version and all the notes make me want to try this for dinner tonight, or soon. My version would take much longer--but yours looks so delish!

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  7. I love retro food and I've got some corn flakes just begging to hop out of the box. This is a great out of the pantry when there's nothing to eat in the house meal.

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  8. @Kelly, there's just something about the you-know-what that makes it a very occasional guilty pleasure! It's a fun dish for sure.

    @Maureen, corn flakes just love to live life as a topping! And if you've got all the ingredients in your pantry - when I was growing up, my mom always did - instant dinner.

    @both, thanks for your comments.

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  9. What a great classic dish! I think casseroles are due for a comeback. And I'm as usual impressed with your photography skills, and that you managed to make even something like tuna casserole look so very appealing and photogenic.

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  10. Hi Katherine, casseroles are tasty and fun to make, that's for sure. And although they take a bit of time to assemble, they're a complete meal (well, you might want to add salad) so they're convenient -perfect for harried cooks. Thanks for your kind words and your comment.

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  11. I used to make tuna noodle casserole all the time when I was in school. It's truly timeless.

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  12. Hi Beth, yup, it is timeless. Great meal for when you're in school, too - relatively inexpensive, easy to make, and tastes great. Thanks for your comment.

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  13. Familiar flavors yet presented with a different twist...this is a must try. Thanks for sharing!

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  14. Hi MyFudo, familiar flavors - even prosaic, maybe - when when combined? Stick-your-face-in-the-plate good! Thanks for commenting.

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  15. I've always heard of tuna noddle casserole but I have never tried it because a lot of times it looks plain yukky. Yours, though, is selling me on the idea. If and when I do make it, I'm going with your recipe because that surely does look appetizing and well presented! YUM!

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  16. Hi Simpy Tia, I agree - a lot of time the dish does turn out looking kinda blah. Having a lot of brightly colored green peas helps pep it up, IMO. Thanks for stopping by.

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  17. I agree with your observation about casseroles, those made with tuna are the best. I'm not a cereal person, so, I rarely have corn flakes around to use them as you did here. I use bread crumbs to top off my casseroles. Still, they do look good in your photos and I think I'll pick up a box the next time tuna casserole is on the menu. And with our weather getting decidedly colder this weekend, casserole season is upon us!

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    1. Hi John, I had leftover corn flakes after making the Chery Winks for Christmas the preceding December. ;-) So the real reason I did the recipe was to use them up! Plus it was an awful lot of fun to do. And yes, casserole season has arrived! Thanks for the comment.

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  18. Tuna Noodle Casserole has been my very favorite casserole since I first discovered it as a new bride. My mom never made it since she was European and had her own way of cooking. I make mine much the same way as this recipe, but I also add a small can of mushroom stems & pieces to it, and I add some finely diced onion (not onion powder. The recipe which I have calls for seasoned bread crumbs mixed w/parmesan cheese and melted butter as a topping, so I still make it that way... and I then sprinkle a bit of paprika and dried parsley flakes over it all (for eye appeal) before baking it. LONG LIVE THE TUNA CASSEROLE!!

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    1. Hi Anonymous, isn't this a fun recipe? I like your variations on this classic - they sound good. One of these days I'm going to make a modern version of this with fresh tuna and so forth, though I'm betting I'll still really like the original. ;-) Thanks for your comment.

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  19. I was raised calling it tuna hotdish & topped with crushed potato chips here in North Dakota. I now like to add a can of muchrooms, some shreeded colby jack & a dollop of sour cream to my sauce.

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    1. Hi Anonymous, I've heard this called hotdish too, now that you mention it. The crushed potato chips are a popular variation! Thanks for the comment.

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    2. Sherry Cull, Ontario, CanadaMay 26, 2014 at 11:27 AM

      I really like that idea! I am a lover of cheese & sour cream!
      Thanks so much for sharing!

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    3. Hi Sherry, isn't the sour cream a fun idea? I need to try that.

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  20. Families in our town served this often in the 50's Instead of cornflakes & butter, most families crushed potato chips for the topping. We also called it a hot dish. Surprising how many of our go-to recipes have been filed away & not used for years.

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    1. Hi Anonymous, crushed potato chips are popular, I know (and delish!), but IMHO corn flakes are the one true topping. :D This is one of those cool old recipes that I really need to make more often. Thanks for the comment.

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  21. I have been making the tuna casserole my whole adult life and had it first as a child and then throughout my growing yrs. It is so easy to make and a good wholesome meal.

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    1. Hi Trisha, this is a classic, and deservedly so! I had this as a kid too (in the 50s) and obviously still make it every now and again. Thanks for the comment.

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  22. It would be great if you had a link to print just the recipe....

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    1. Hi Anonymous, alas, as far as I know the blogging software I'm using (Blogger) doesn't have an easy way to print recipe. I should look into that, though. Thanks for the comment.

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  23. We also had this, but I remember my mother cutting up a little celery and also hard boiled egg. This made it go a little further as we had a large family.

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    1. Hi Anonymous, I like the idea of the celery and egg. I'll have to give that a try! Thanks for the comment.

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    2. Would it be possible to make this page more printer friendly? I would like to just print the recipes. One page versus 5 or more. Thank you

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    3. Hi Anonymous, alas, I haven't found a decent recipe plug-in for Blogger that I like. You can highlight just the recipe and copy, and paste into a text program, and that will work. A bit clunky, I admit. I usually just have a laptop or tablet computer in my kitchen that I use for recipes these days. Sorry I can't be more helpful - I do feel your frustration. I just haven't found a solution that pleases me. Thanks for the question.

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  24. would canned salmon work OK instead of tuna

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    1. Hi Anonymous, I haven't tried canned salmon, but I see no reason why it wouldn't work. In fact, I'll bet it would be delish! Let me know if you try it and like it. ;-)

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  25. Wow this recipe brings back memories from the 60's. I like tuna noodle but my wife doesn't. so I have to scale down all the recipes to make it for one. Thanks for the memories

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    1. HI Anonymous, this is really a classic recipe, isn't it? You might be able to make it in bulk, but store it (unbaked) in little baking dishes in the freezer (wrap them well with foil). That way you could bake one at a time. I haven't done this so I don't know if it works, but worth a try. Thanks for the comment.

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  26. Mom made "Tuna, Noodle and Tomato" weekly, which included only a can of tuna, a bag of noodles and a 28 oz. can of whole tomatoes she crushed. It was one of my favorite meals, I still make it but now add, the soup, peas, and a handful or two of grated cheddar cheese and call it TNT. I never add a topping because I don't like it but may try the canned onions, also liked the suggestion of mushrooms and celery. I may even try it your way but I think I would miss the tomatoes.

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    1. Hi Anonymous, the tomatoes sound like a great idea! If you're happy with it, I wouldn't change a thing. Thanks for the comment.

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  27. My favorite way to make Tuna Noodle Casserole is with boxed Macaroni and Cheese. Make the mac and cheese according to box directions, then add 1 can cream of mushroom soup and 1 13 oz can tuna, drained. Bake for 20-30 minutes. Any crumbs on the top are optional, as are any added veggies. I think the recipe was on the mac and cheese box in the late '60s or early '70s. Love it made your way, too.

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    1. Hi Ancestor Hunter, that sure sounds easy and fun! Thanks for the comment.

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  28. can you replace the cream of mushroom soup with cream of celery or something? I have two family members who have allergic reactions to mushrooms.

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    1. Hi Anonymous, I think cream of celery soup (or another canned cream soup) would make a great substitution! It's always fun to experiment, isn't it? Thanks for the question.

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  29. what a great dish, so many different ways to make the same basic recipe. Too bad only my daughter and myself are the only ones who eat this - I love it. I need to make it more.

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    1. Hi Anonymous, I guess that means more for you and your daughter. ;-) And it's really interesting how many different riffs there are on this recipe -- and all of them good! Thanks for the comment.

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  30. Sherry Cull, Ontario, CanadaMay 26, 2014 at 11:23 AM

    Tuna Noodle Casserole was a favorite in our house in the fifties & beyond! We topped ours with crushed potato chips! It is still my favorite but not for my spouse! I had forgotten the ingredients though! Could never seem to get right even though I cooked all the meals at home! A big thanks for sharing!

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    1. Hi Sherry, great dish, isn't it? Happy to have the recipe to share with you. Thanks for the comment.

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  31. Sherry Cull, Ontario, CanadaMay 26, 2014 at 11:34 AM

    It really is great to see home cooked recipes of the earlier days come back into use!
    The one that my mom always made & I can't seem to find my copy is stuffed flank steak done in the slow cooker! Would appreciate it if there is someone out there that has this recipe I would surely appreciate a copy of it!
    Thanks Sherry Cull, Campbellford, ON Canada!

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    1. Hi Sherry, alas, I don't know that recipe. But I read loads of blogs, so I'll keep my eyes peeled. :-)

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  32. My gram made this for me forever ago just like you make it. Back in the day (50's), this was a cheaper meal and it went a long way. She used to warm it back up by adding a little milk to soften it up. It is a wonderful and comforting meal.

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    1. Hi Lynne, isn't this a great dish? My mom would sometimes add milk to leftovers too! Thanks for the comment.

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  33. omg I cannot believe you posted this recipe! I loved this when I was growing up! Loved it (who didn't?)... and it would be so much fun to make it for my 3 Frenchmen (though seriously I wonder if they would eat it). And they actually now sell Cambell's Cream of Mushroom soup in France! I have to share this on my facebook LaF page!

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    1. Hi Jamie, isn't this a great oldie? I don't make it often, but love it when I do. ;-) Thanks for the comment.

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  34. Love it! This is one of those golden oldies... who cares if it uses canned goods! It's too yummy to say no.

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    1. Hi Lizzy, isn't this a fun dish! One of my childhood favorites! Thanks for the comment.

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  35. I used to make this all the time when my kids were young, but I'd use ramen noodles. We now don't eat grains or pasta, also hate to cook (like to read recipes though!), so I'm experimenting with doing this in the crockpot as we speak. I just left out the noodles, and used dried onion bits, (I was out of fresh, or I'd have used them) about triple the amount, and triple the amount of garlic.I added parsley, and no salt seasoning salt as well. I'll put cheese to melt on top just before serving, as I didn't have corn flakes, crackers or bread crumbs. I never topped it when making it for my kids though, and they always loved it!

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    1. Hi Anniesazi, ramen noodles are a good idea! And the dish you're making sounds really interesting -- I'll bet it'll be delish! Thanks for the comment.

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