Perhaps the king of Mexico’s condiments, salsa can elevate even the most simple dish to sublime levels. While many visitors to Mexico may think of something simple and cooked, with tomato and onion, like Pace or Herdez produced brands when speaking of salsa, or perhaps the fresh pico de gallo you’ll almost always find in restaurants and stands (made with fresh tomato, onion and cilantro, etc), the word “salsa” itself actually translates directly to “sauce.” To leave it simply at pico, or a jar of cooked, processed salsa – well that would be a sad thing indeed.
Salsas come in a dizzying array in Mexico. While you’ll almost always find both a red and a green salsa at any taco stand, the heat, texture and flavours of each will rarely align from one to the other. Whether it’s cooked salsa, salsa cruda (aka: salsa fresca) or salsa verde, you won’t likely find a store bought salsa at any restaurant or taco stand. People are proud of their salsas and even if the ingredients are the same, the proportions and preparation make the variations almost endless.
There are some basic elements that stay the same, depending on the salsa. Salsa Roja for instance, the name means simply red sauce, as it’s made from a base of tomatoes. This salsa can be made with fresh ingredients, or cooked, or a combination thereof. It may contain any number of dried and/or fresh chilies, cilantro, onion, spices, etc.
Salsa verde is simply green sauce and is most commonly a tomatillo-based salsa. Tomatillos look very similar to tomatoes, with a dry papery cover but they are actually a fruit, related to the gooseberry and have an acidic, tart sweetness to them. They make a wonderfully fresh tasting salsa when mixed with fresh chilies, cilantro, onion, lime, avocado, etc. and the tomatillos may be used uncooked, roasted or stewed, which changes both the texture and flavour of the resulting salsa.
Once you’ve decided on the base, it’s time to decide on the desired level of heat. Will you be adding any fresh or dried chili? Perhaps something gentle like a small amount of jalapeño to get you started, or a whole jalepeño – with the seeds included. Seeds add both texture and heat. Are you a “bring on the heat!” kind of person? Then you may want to consider some serrano(s) or perhaps even habanero chili in your salsa. When using dried chilies, for a wonderful smoky flavour look towards chipotles or moritas, otherwise guajillo, arbol or pasillas are all chilies worthy of consideration. Experiment!
Whether green with tomatillos, or red, with tomatoes, once you have the heat level decided, it’s all about the other added ingredients to fill out the flavour profile.
When preparing the ingredients, the method used is key to the resulting variety in salsas. For example, to add a smokey richness to a salsa, one of the easiest things you can do is roast some of the ingredients. If you have a BBQ or grill, simply lay large, thick (1- 1.5″) slices of onion (or tomatillos) across the grill and allow them to blacken well before adding them to your food processor or blender. If you have a gas stove, you can actually cut the onion into quarters and hold it directly over the burner flame with metal tongs, if neither of those options is available, you can also roast them in a dry pan on the stove-top or even broil them until charred. Something to keep in mind, dry roasting onions in a stove-top pan will leave a tough-to-clean black residue on the pan, so don’t use any pan you’re fussy about keeping pristine and tomatoes and tomatillos will leak juice, so the method used for charring might vary for these reasons. The same process works for fresh chilies, a little pan or flame charring adds great depth of flavour. It’s not about softening these items, it’s just about the flavour.
When using dried chilies in salsa roja, they can be dry roasted in a pan or over a flame to bring out the oils and flavour, or cooked in a little water until softened then used whole, with the seeds in or out, depending on your preference.
Cilantro is the leafy part of the coriander plant and is a key element to almost any salsa and can be added stem and all into the blender or food processor. If you’re making a salsa cruda/fresh salsa, presentation becomes more important and stripping the leaves from the stem to use (rather than adding the stems) before rough-chopping them, makes for a more appealing looking salsa.
Ready to dive in and make your own? Here’s some online recipes to get you started on this magnificent component of authentic Mexican cooking.
Try an easy, basic salsa roja from Mexico In My Kitchen
Here’s another salsa roja from Chile Pepper Madness, slightly different, with lime and garlic added.
Interested in trying a roasted salsa roja? Here’s an oven-roasted version from Once Upon a Chef
Not quite sure about using tomatillos? Try this Chile de Arbol (a dried chili) salsa from Mexico In My Kitchen, which uses both tomatoes and tomatillos.
For an easy, lime-free salsa verde, check out this one from Mama Latina Tips.
An easy roasted salsa verde with great options and directions is this oven-roasted version from Vanilla and Bean
For something different, try this creamy avocado salsa from My Latina Table.