How To Make Pico de Gallo (Salsa Fresca)

Cooking Lessons from The Kitchn

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Don't you just love a good pico de gallo salsa?  Fresh, crisp, and singing with a touch of heat and cilantro, pico de gallo goes with so much more than the usual bag of corn chips.  Use it as a sauce for broiled fish or chicken; spoon it over thinly sliced skirt steak, scrambled eggs, or roasted vegetables; or toss it into a bowl of beans.  And of course, use it with tacos and burritos or any other dish that needs a dose of freshness and zing.

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Another virtue of pico de gallo is that it is also very quick and easy to put together. Just a few minutes of chopping and a quick stir, and it's ready.  It does develop a little more flavor if it can sit for a few hours, but truth be told, I don't always wait that long and it is still tasty.  No one has complained yet!

Just what is pico de gallo and how does it differ from salsa?  Pico de gallo (also known as salsa fresca) is a fresh, uncooked salsa, whereas most of what we think of as "salsas" are made with canned tomatoes. With pico de gallo, the vegetables are also chopped instead of blended, which gives this sauce its rough, spiky appearance — this is perhaps why it is called pico de gallo or (literally) rooster's beak.  (Other sources say its called this because the chopped vegetables look like bird feed.)

Like any dish that is made in millions of households the world over, there are many variations of pico de gallo.  The one offered here is quite basic, using a base of tomatoes, onions, chile peppers, and cilantro, but I have seen other versions with ingredients like cucumber, radish, tomatillo and jicama, just to name a few.

Because pico de gallo is a raw sauce with just a handful of ingredients, it's worth it to pick the freshest fruits and vegetables you can.  It can be made year round, but it really is best in the summer months when the tomatoes are at their peak. Here are a few helpful hints that will help you make the best pico de gallo you've ever had:

Choosing the Tomatoes

Here I must make a confession.  When making the pico de gallo for the photos in this post, I choose purple cherokee heirloom tomatoes, knowing they had a great tomato flavor and a beautiful color. Perfect, right?  Wrong.  Heirlooms are just too juicy for this salsa and I ended up with way too much liquid.  Even after I drained some off, the tomatoes still kept giving off juice.  They tasted great but there's no way anyone was going to dip a chip in that!

What kind should I have used?  Plum tomatoes are best.  They are the type of tomato I usually use because they have great flavor with a meaty texture and they are usually less juicy.  If good looking plums aren't available, choose a nice basic tomato.  If dry-farmed tomatoes are available where you live, they're an excellent choice as well.  In either case, to keep the liquid down, try to find tomatoes that are deeply colored, firm and not overly-ripe.  

You may be tempted to de-seed your tomatoes as a way to control the liquid. The problem is, there's a lot of flavor in the jelly that surrounds the seeds and because of this, I like to leave them in.  It's up to you.

Choosing the Onions

Most Mexican cooks I know use white onions in their salsas and so do I.  White onions are reputed to be slightly sharper than red or yellow, and so they balance out nicely with the tomatoes.  If you can only find red or green onions, feel free to use them as well.  People also like to use sweet onions like Walla Walla and Vidalia, which are fine, too.  I find I don't care for raw yellow onions, so I avoid them in salsas.

I usually mince the onions and garlic first, put them in a bowl and then add the lime juice.  The acid in the lime tames some of the intensity of the onions and keeps them from being overbearing.

Choosing the Chili Peppers

This recipe calls for a jalapeño pepper since that is the kind of chili pepper available in most grocery stores.  You can of course sub in your favorite chili and control the amount of heat to your liking.  If you can manage it, try to taste a tiny bit of the pepper before chopping.  If it's too hot, remove the membrane and seeds first.

A Note About Cilantro

I understand that cilantro can be off-putting to some people.  There's even a genetic tendency to dislike cilantro!  But cilantro is really an essential flavor in pico de gallo. So while it's certainly possible to leave it out, I urge you to try at least a small amount in your pico de gallo.  Start with half the amount called for, making up the rest with some parsley.  

Make Pico de Gallo Your Way

Finally, pico de gallo is the kind of dish that really isn't well-suited for a recipe.  All the ingredients used in pico de gallo will vary widely in size, flavor, intensity, and water content from day to day, region to region, in and out of season.  Because of this, I give the amounts in the recipe below in cups and spoons as well as the approximate number of items needed.  

But even further, pico de gallo is perfect recipe to improvise: chop up some tomatoes, onions, cilantro, garlic, and chili.  Toss with lime juice and salt.  Taste. Adjust heat, salt, and acid as needed. Taste again, adjust again. Serve and enjoy! It really is that simple.

How To Make Pico de Gallo

Makes 2 to 3 cups

What You Need

Ingredients
1/4 whole onion (1/2 cup finely diced)
1 garlic clove
1 lime
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 to 2 jalapeño peppers (1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons minced)
4 to 6 plum tomatoes (2 cups medium-diced tomatoes)
About 1/2 bunch cilantro (1/2 cup chopped)

Equipment
Knife
Cutting board
Small bowl
Microplane or garlic press
Citrus juicer

Instructions

  1. Chop the onion and mince the garlic: Finely chop the onion and place it in a small bowl.  Using a microplane, grate the garlic into the bowl (or use a garlic press or very finely chop it with a knife.)  

  2. Marinate the onion and garlic in lime juice: Cut the lime in half and juice half of it.  You should have about 2 tablespoons.  Add the salt and the lime juice to the garlic and onions, stir, and set aside for a few minutes while chopping the other ingredients.

  3. Chop the jalapeño: Slice the pepper in half and nick off a small piece of the membrane or seed, and taste for heat.  If the pepper isn't too hot, finely mince it. If it is very hot, remove the seeds and membrane from one or both halves, and then mince.  You should have about 1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons of pepper.  Add to to the onions.

  4. Chop the tomatoes and cilantro:  Chop the tomatoes into medium chunks and add to the bowl.  Roughly chop the cilantro and add to the bowl.  Stir gently to combine.

  5. Adjust seasonings:  Taste the pico de gallo.  If needed, add more salt, more cilantro, or more lime juice from the remaining half of the lime.

  6. Rest and serve:  If possible, cover and let rest for a few hours in the fridge or on the counter to blend the flavors.  Best if used the day it is made.

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This post and recipe have been updated. Originally published 7/02/07.

(Images: Dana Velden)

Per serving, based on 16 servings. (% daily value)
Calories
5
Fat
0 g (0.1%)
Saturated
0 g (0%)
Carbs
1.2 g (0.4%)
Fiber
0.3 g (1.3%)
Sugars
0.7 g
Protein
0.2 g (0.5%)
Sodium
73.8 mg (3.1%)

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