What Is Tuna Hotdish?

Meg Higa

Hotdish is a style of casserole cuisine popular in the northern Plains states of the U.S. A casserole is a single large, deep pan of mixed ingredients baked in an oven. Home kitchens have their own signature recipe of casserole contents, but one of the most common meat components is canned tuna. Tuna hotdish, or tuna casserole, is a dish that has been adopted by many kitchens throughout the United States.

Peas are a common ingredient in a hotdish.
Peas are a common ingredient in a hotdish.

Although a hotdish can be made with nearly any combination of ingredients, it most often contains a starch, a vegetable, a meat, a flavoring and binding agent, and a topping. Thinly sliced potatoes, or pastas such as macaroni are the most common starches, while rice is rarely used. Added vegetables can often be seasonal, with green beans a popular choice. Meat is either ground or pre-cooked and chopped in small pieces. Seafood is almost never an ingredient, with the exception of tuna hotdish.

Cheddar cheese is often used to top a tuna hotdish.
Cheddar cheese is often used to top a tuna hotdish.

This style of cooking became popular in states like Minnesota and the Dakotas, where winters can be harsh and homes rely on canned and preserved foodstuffs. Whether store-bought or preserved from spring harvest, the use of canned vegetables is the norm. Among the most popular of the binding agents for all the ingredients is also canned, condensed cream soup. Canned tuna is a natural complement.

A representative tuna hotdish would combine canned tuna, canned or frozen cooked green peas, and dried small egg noodles or elbow macaroni with a can of mushroom cream soup. Water or broth can be added to attain the right consistency, as well as salt and pepper to personal taste. The mixture is poured into an uncovered glass or ceramic casserole dish. It can then be topped with a sprinkle of cheddar cheese or bread crumbs to create a crispy, golden brown crust.

Following the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 when the region became a part of the United States, a wave of Scandinavian immigrants accustomed to northern weather arrived. Their former European diet was rich in seafood, but the settled area is landlocked, limiting their choices. With the modern introduction of canned seafood, the tuna hotdish exploded in popularity. The ingredients are readily available; it bakes easily unattended; and it is satisfying comfort food.

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