Culinary Arts

How to Cook Tuna: 6 Ways to Cook Fresh Tuna, Plus 10 Tuna Fish Recipe Ideas

Written by MasterClass

Jun 4, 2019 • 6 min read

From toro sashimi to canned “chicken of the sea,” tuna is both a delicacy and lunchbox staple. But it’s also an important part of marine food chains, with unsustainable fishing practices putting populations at risk.

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What Is Tuna?

Top predators, tuna are large oceanic fishes of the genus Thunnus. They contain large amount of myoglobin (a red pigment that stores oxygen), which is why tuna has such a savory, meaty flavor.

5 Most Common Tuna Varieties

The most important commercial tuna varieties are:

  1. Albacore (Thunnus alalunga): Albacore has the lightest flesh of all the tuna species, ranging from light beige to brown. When cooked, Albacore meat turns off-white, which is why it’s known as “white meat” tuna when canned. Averaging 10 to 30 pounds, Albacore flesh is mild and rich, but less firm than that of Bluefin and Yellowfin. It has the most omega-3 fatty acids of any tuna and its moderate fat content (7 percent) makes Albacore good for grilling. For the best flavor, serve rare and marinate before cooking.
  2. Bluefin (Thunnus thynnus): The largest of all commercially available species of tuna (averaging 200 to 400 pounds), Bluefin tuna are top predators, making them very important to the marine ecosystem. Its flesh is the darkest and fattiest (15 percent) among tuna varieties, making Bluefin highly prized commercially. In Japan, it’s graded No. 1 (sashimi grade) and No. 2 (grill grade), with Nos. 3 and 4 being lesser quality. The firm, deep red flesh is similar to a ribeye steak, and should be served rare.
  3. Yellowfin (Thunnus albacares): Also known as Ahi tuna, Yellowfin gets its name from its long yellow dorsal fin along its side. It’s a medium-size tuna, averaging 7 ½ to 20 pounds. Considered more flavorful than albacore, it’s leaner than Bluefin (with 2 percent fat). The raw meat is bright red, but turns gray-brown when cooked.
  4. Bigeye (Thunnus obesus): Also known as Ahi tuna, Bigeye tuna averages 20 to 50 pounds and has red flesh with a mild flavor, firm texture, and 8 percent fat content. Conservation status: vulnerable.
  5. Skipjack (Katsuwonus pelamis): Not actually part of the Thunnus genus, Skipjack tuna comes from the same family as “real” tuna (Scombridae). Skipjack tuna is more commonly sold as “light” canned tuna, but good-quality skipjack, red when raw, can be eaten fresh and has a flavor similar to yellowfin. It’s average weight is 7 to 22 pounds and it is relatively low in fat (2.5 percent).

Tuna Nutritional Information

The nutritional profile of tuna varies with the species. Albacore tuna, for example, contains 733 milligrams omega-3 fatty acids per three-ounce serving, whereas Skipjack contains 228. It also comes down to fillet location: fatty tuna belly, known as ventresca in Italy and toro in Japan, can have 10 times the fat content of other parts of the same fish. Most tuna is a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, protein, and B vitamins.

Tuna Health Benefits

The omega-3 fatty acids found in tuna can lower risk for heart disease and cancer, and support brain health. Of the tuna varieties, fatty bluefin tuna contains the most omega-3 fatty acids. Tuna is high in vitamin B3 (niacin), which supports heart health; vitamin B12, which is necessary to form red blood cells; and vitamin D, which supports mineral absorption.

How to Buy and Store Tuna

When buying fresh tuna steaks, look for fish that smells fresh and looks moist and bright. Avoid tuna that looks dull or brown on the edges. If you’re going to sear your tuna, look for thick steaks that will give you plenty of raw tuna center. Store fresh tuna steaks covered, on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator, until you’re ready to cook. Consume within two days of purchase, or you can also freeze tuna steaks for up to three months.

When buying canned tuna, look for the phrases “pole-and-line-caught,” “troll-caught,” and/or “FAD-free,” all of which indicate that the tuna was responsibly caught (ie, in a way that minimizes bycatch). Look for the kind that’s packed in olive oil for the best flavor, and choose “light” tuna (skipjack) if you’re worried about mercury levels.

Is Raw Tuna Safe to Eat?

Although all uncooked fish can contain parasites or microbes that can cause sickness, Bluefin, Yellowfin, Bigeye, and Albacore tuna rarely contain parasites. If consuming tuna raw, look for the freshest, highest-quality fish available. Fish that has been frozen immediately after it was caught has the least potential for containing parasites, and freezing fish at -4°F for seven days will kill parasites.

How to Season Tuna

Brining your tuna, aka dry-curing, before cooking will yield a firmer texture. Rub tuna with kosher salt and seal in a plastic bag or airtight container for half an hour, then rinse with very cold water and proceed with your preferred cooking technique.

6 Ways to Cook Tuna

  1. Pan-sear: Searing is the classic method for quickly cooking the outside of tuna while leaving the inside raw. Try coating in a crust of sesame, freshly ground black pepper, coriander, or other spices. Sear tuna in a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet or nonstick pan over medium-high heat, about 1 to 2 minutes per side.
  2. Confit: Traditionally, confit is a technique of cooking and preserving meat in its own fat (the word comes from the French for preserve). For oily home-cooked tuna that’s similar to (but better than!) the canned stuff, marinate tuna overnight in 1 cup olive oil per pound of fresh tuna, plus some lemon peel. Transfer tuna and its oil to a large saucepan over medium-low heat and cook until mostly opaque but still a little pink in the center, about 5 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer to a plate. Alternatively, use a water bath with an immersion circulator set to 113° to 115°F. Pack tuna pieces in jars and add enough extra-virgin olive oil to cover. Seal jars and cook tuna in jars in the water bath for an hour and a half.
  3. Grill: To keep tuna from sticking to the grill and add flavor and moisture, marinate the fish. Brush tuna steaks with oil, then grill over very high heat 1 to 2 minutes per side. Do not cook tuna steak past medium-rare, and don’t let it rest after searing.
  4. Oil-poach: In a large saucepan, heat 1 cup olive oil per ounce of tuna steak over medium-low until a thermometer registers 160°F. Add seasoned tuna and poach until mostly opaque but still a little pink in the center, about 4 minutes per side. Use a slotted spoon to transfer to a plate.
  5. Sous vide: Dry-brine tuna half an hour before cooking. Add olive oil to a zip-top bag. Cook at 105°F for sashimi-like texture, 115°F for steak-like texture, and 130°F when substituting for canned tuna.
  6. Bake: Marinate 1-inch thick tune fillets in your chosen marinade for at least one hour. Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 450ºF. Remove fish from marinade and brush with oil, then bake on a sheet pan until seared on top and pink on the inside, about 8 to 12 minutes, depending on the thickness of the steak.

10 Tuna Recipe Ideas

  1. Gordon Ramsay’s Seared Sesame Crusted Tuna
  2. Tuna poke bowl with rice, cucumber, edamame, nori, and soy sauce
  3. Tuna burgers with homemade miso mayonnaise
  4. Tuna tartare with avocado, ideal for an appetizer or side dish
  5. Wolfgang Puck’s tuna sashimi with ponzu sauce
  6. Tuna tostada with avocado, leeks, and homemade chipotle mayonnaise
  7. Tuna salad sandwiches with homemade mayonnaise
  8. Oil-poached tuna niçoise salad
  9. Seared tuna sandwiches with dijon mustard and crispy onions
  10. Grilled tuna marinated in fresh lemon juice

What's a Good Substitute for Tuna Fish?

If you can’t find a particular species of tuna, the next best thing is to substitute for a different variety. No tuna at all? Try swordfish or Mako shark (conservation status: vulnerable). For a vegan tuna substitution, try substituting smashed chickpeas for canned or flaked tuna.

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