Salsa long ago surpassed ketchup as America’s best-selling flavor enhancer, and one reason is the wide variety of salsas available.
You might like thinner, hot sauce-like salsa. Or maybe you lean toward the chunky, pico de gallo-style salsas. But having tried more than a dozen store-bought salsas, I’d say you might consider just making your own.
Here’s the thing about salsas: Although we might think of them in rigid categories of red, green and pico, salsas are as diverse as the people who make them. They each carry the fingerprints of the people who teach us how to make them, from our parents and grandparents to our co-workers and neighbors.
It’s easy to go overboard when using peppers, so start off with fewer than you think you'll need and add more as you go.
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Taking out the seeds and the white membrane in chilies will cut back on their heat level, and you can always add just a few of the seeds and membrane if you like a little kick.
Peppers change in heat depending on the season, another reason no two salsas are ever identical. In fact, the same salsa made with the same recipe will taste different every time, either because of incremental changes to the taste or quantity of the ingredients or in your tools or technique.
Fruit salsas made with mangoes, pineapples or even peaches can be a refreshing change during the summer months, while in winter, you might veer toward prunes, peanuts or carrots for even more earthy salsas.
Those kinds of salsas can be a little more complex or elaborate, but salsas can be as simple as jalapenos that have been simmered and pureed. Simmering the fresh peppers first takes the bite out of them, creating a much more mild salsa – or at least one that, if you’re new to this, has a smaller chance of searing your tongue.
Dried peppers need to be rehydrated, too, and most salsa experts recommend toasting dried chilies before soaking them in hot water. But I’ve also seen cooks throw dried peppers in as they blend the other ingredients together and let the peppers hydrate in the salsa itself for an hour or two before serving.
Ahora Si! editor Josefina Casati makes her salsa just like Pati Jinich, the host of Pati’s Mexican Table, by boiling tomatillos, garlic and peppers in a little water, then pureeing the softened ingredients with a little chopped onion, cilantro and salt in a blender.
A heads-up about those tomatillos: If you boil them, make sure you cool the tomatillos (and the water) completely or else the salsa will congeal. If your salsa is lacking tang and you don’t want to add tomatillos or lime juice, you can add a splash of vinegar.
The lazy version, as Casati calls it, is the same salsa ingredients, but without cooking them. You might have to add a few tablespoons of water if the ingredients don’t start to break down in the blender or food processor. On the other hand, when she’s going fancy, Casati will char the chilies, tomatoes (or tomatillos), onion (or scallions) and garlic on a comal or grill.
Canned chipotles in adobo are the quickest way to add a smokiness to your salsa without having to char the ingredients. They aren’t too spicy, but they are strongly flavored. You'll only want to add one or maybe two, depending on how much salsa you’re making, which means you'll probably have leftover chipotles and adobo sauce. You can freeze the remaining chilies and sauce in a small freezer bag for later. If you want, you can puree it first and then add it directly to a pot of chili or a stew.
The same can be said of leftover salsa in general. Chunky salsas, such as pico de gallo, don’t freeze well, but the thick, pureed and cooked ones aren’t so bad after they’ve thawed in casseroles, chili, pozoles and other stews.
In her newest book, Mexican Today, Jinich simmers tomatoes, chilies and garlic, purees them, then throws that salsa back into a pan with a little oil and simmers it for another 5 to 10 minutes to further develop the flavors. That red salsa goes with chips, antojitos, tacos, enchiladas and stews. “Once you make it, you'll see why it’s silly to buy bottled salsa,” she writes.
One ingredient that often pops up in green salsas is avocado. Instead of making both salsa and guacamole, cooks, including Jinich, will add an avocado to a tomatillo salsa, making a hybrid that is both tart and creamy. You could even throw in some spinach to up the green factor.
Another way to add creaminess to salsa is, well, cream. Sour cream, Mexican crema or mayonnaise can take your salsa in a direction that feels like an entirely different condiment.
No matter what combination of peppers or cooking techniques you use, your salsa will be different from anyone else’s. You might have inherited the nose to be able to tell how hot a salsa is simply by smelling it, or you might find yourself mixing and matching “off” batches that accidentally create the best salsa you’ve ever made.
As soon as you master one version, there are countless others to explore, a journey that might not have an end.
Easy Red or Green Salsa
2 to 4 small tomatoes or tomatillos, husks removed
2 to 4 jalapenos or serranos, stemmed
1 to 3 cloves garlic
1/2 small onion (yellow or white, about 1/2 cup chopped)
1/2 cup cilantro, chopped (leaves and stems)
1 tsp. sea salt, or more to taste
Cover the tomatoes or tomatillos, peppers and garlic with water and simmer for 10-12 minutes. Cook until the tomatoes or tomatillos are easily pierced with a fork. Set aside to cool in the water. (If using tomatillos, you must let the water cool completely or else the salsa will congeal.)
Place tomatoes or tomatillos and garlic, cilantro, onions and salt in a blender, as well as half of the chilies. Pulse to combine. Taste, and add more chilies and/or salt to taste.
Adapted from recipes by Josefina Casati and Pati Jinich
Salsa Roja Taqueria (Red Taco Stand-Style Salsa)
6 to 8 dried arbol chilies
2 guajillo chilies
3 medium cloves garlic, unpeeled
2 ripe plum tomatoes
Cut off the stems of the chilies and shake out the seeds. Heat a comal on medium-low and place the garlic and chilies on the heat. Turning frequently, toast the garlic and chilies until they become aromatic. Peel the garlic. Place the chilies in a bowl and cover with water. Let stand for 15 minutes.
While the chilies are soaking, turn up the heat on the comal to medium-high and cook the whole tomatoes, turning with tongs, until the skin gets blackened in spots. Transfer to a bowl and set aside.
Place chilies, garlic and two tablespoons of the reserved chili water in the blender. Pulse until smooth. Add the tomatoes, two more tablespoons of the chili water and 3/4 teaspoon salt. Blend again, adding more water and salt if necessary.
Chipotle, Peanut and Sesame Seed Salsa (Salsa Macha)
This salsa, which originated in the state of Veracruz, on the Gulf of Mexico, has a very strong personality and many uses.
It is made by sauteing just a few ingredients — dried chipotle chilies, garlic, peanuts and sesame seeds — in a generous amount of olive oil, then blending the mixture with a splash of vinegar and a sprinkle of sugar and salt. You end up with a mix that, unlike a typical salsa, is a very wet and textured paste. It will keep for months in the refrigerator, getting better and better as time goes by.
Since this salsa has a substantial amount of olive oil, the chili paste will sink to the bottom if it stands for a while. You can choose to stir it up and serve the salsa as a paste, or you can use a bit of the flavored oil for multiple purposes, such as drizzling over fish, shrimp, pota toes, pizza, toast, cooked vegetables, or even an omelet. Other nuts, such as almonds, pecans, walnuts, hazelnuts or pine nuts, can be substituted for the peanuts.
1 1/2 cups olive oil
1/2 cup unsalted raw peanuts
4 garlic cloves
2 Tbsp. sesame seeds
2 oz. (1 1/2 to 2 cups) dried chipotle chilies, stemmed and seeded
1 Tbsp. packed brown sugar, or to taste
1 tsp. kosher or sea salt, or to taste
3 Tbsp. distilled white vinegar
In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium heat until hot but not smok ing. Add the peanuts and garlic cloves and cook, stirring, for 30 seconds, or just until they begin to color. Be on the lookout, as peanuts can be deceiving and not really reveal how brown they are getting until it is too late. Add the sesame seeds and chilies and cook, stirring, for 1 minute, or until the chilies are lightly toasted.
Transfer the contents of the pan, including all of the oil, to a food processor or blender. Add the sugar, salt and vinegar, and process until smooth. Pour into a container, let cool, and refrigerate if you are not using the salsa that day. Makes 3 cups.
From “Mexican Today: New and Rediscovered Recipes for Contemporary Kitchens,” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30).