A Simple Way to Make Fresh Salsa — And Endless Upgrades

updated Dec 4, 2019
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Credit: Joe Lingeman

I’m not the salsa police. I grew up eating, and enjoying, salsa from a jar. And I will still buy packaged salsa now and then (usually the fresh kind in the grocery deli case) if I don’t have time to make it at home. 

But it was a revelation to learn, once I moved to Mexico and enrolled in cooking school, that fresh salsa is relatively fast and easy to make. It tastes much better than what comes out of a jar. And you don’t really need a recipe once you start to understand the essential ingredients and learn a little about what different chiles taste like.

What Is Salsa, and How Should You Eat It? 

The word “salsa” just means “sauce” in Spanish. In Mexico, a salsa can be any kind of sauce, but people generally think of salsa as two distinct things: a chile-based sauce that sits on the dining table and is spooned onto the meal, or a simmered, chile-based sauce that is mixed with meat and vegetables — like, say, pork stewed in spicy tomatillo sauce — and then eaten with tortillas. 

Basically, salsa adds an extra layer of complexity and flavor to a dish. You can use it on almost anything: meat, fish, veggies, beans. The meal doesn’t have to be fancy or even well-thought-out. I like spooning salsa into a tortilla with sliced avocado for a snack.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

Most Mexican Salsas Have These 4 Ingredients

  1. Chiles: They can be dried or fresh. 
  2. Aromatics: Onion (white is traditional in Mexico), garlic, or both. 
  3. Tangy acidic fruits: Usually tomato or tomatillo.
  4. Salt to taste.

How to Make a Basic Salsa

Grab a small roma tomato, a quarter of a small onion, a garlic clove and at least two fresh chiles (serrano or jalapeño work well, or you can kick things up a notch and do habanero). If the chiles are large, you can use one instead. But in general, don’t worry too much about proportions. Then coarsely chop your ingredients and toss everything in the blender. Blend the items to your desired texture, and then taste it, add at least a half teaspoon of salt, and taste again. If it’s too hot, add a little more tomato. If it’s too acidic, add a little more onion. If it’s not spicy enough, add another pepper. If it’s just meh, add more salt.

One note: You can use dried chiles instead of fresh, but you’ll need to soak them in warm water for about 10 minutes first, until their skins soften up. If you’re nervous about the heat, slice the chiles open with kitchen scissors or a knife before you soak them, and scrape out and discard the seeds.

These four ingredients will be enough to make a tasty sauce, but if you like, you can add more ingredients. Cilantro, lime, and spices like black pepper or cumin are always welcome. This is a raw salsa, but not all salsas are raw. You can cook the ingredients, to add even more flavor.

Credit: Christine Han

Three Ways to Cook Salsa Ingredients for Even More Flavor

Cooking the chiles, onion, tomatoes, tomatillos or garlic can add lots of depth to the flavors, or can allow the flavors to meld. Here are three traditional techniques:

Roasting

Roasting is one of the easiest ways to make salsa more flavorful. To make a roasted salsa, put all the ingredients (except salt) on a flat, round griddle — called a comal — over medium-high heat. Turn each thing with tongs until it’s blistered, blackened, and soft. Coarsely chop the aromatics, then toss it all in a blender and blend to your desired consistency. If you’re working with dried chiles, toast them lightly for a minute or two on the comal, but be careful not to burn them (otherwise they’ll taste bitter). Then, use kitchen shears or a sharp knife to slice them open and scrape out the seeds, before putting them in warm water to soften. 

Boiling

To make a boiled salsa, you put all the ingredients (except salt) in saucepan, cover with cold water, bring the pot to a simmer, and cook until everything is soft. Then you drain the liquid, coarsely chop the aromatics, put it all in the blender, and blend to your desired consistency. You can also reserve a little of the cooking water to mix in if you want to thin it out. Boiled salsas work great for enchilada sauces, in stews, and as fillings for tamales. 

Frying

This method, in which ingredients are simply fried in oil and blended, works for oily, grainy salsas like salsa macha, which is a mix of dried chiles, spices, and nuts, or for things like mole (pronounced “mole-ay”), where ingredients are fried individually then blended.

Credit: Christine Han
The author at home in her New York City kitchen, roasting salsa ingredients on a comal.

Tips for Making Homemade Salsa

Here are a few important things to remember when you’re making salsa.

  • Don’t mix fresh and dried chiles. If you are using fresh chiles, mix as many varieties as you want. Just don’t add a jalapeño and something dried, like an ancho, or the flavor and color will be off.
  • Don’t go overboard on onion. Onion can sweeten and mute the chile. I like using a small wedge, like a quarter of a small onion, to start. If the salsa tastes too acidic, you can add more.
  • A good salsa needs salt. I add it at the end, once the flavors come together. 
  • You should be able to detect the flavor of the chile. If the salsa seems too tomatoey, add more chiles. If it isn’t hot enough, you can add more chiles after you’ve blended; it won’t hurt the salsa. If something seems off and you can’t put your finger on it, try a little more salt.
  •  Experiment with different chiles. Never tasted a chile manzano or habanero? Try them. They’re citrusy and perfumey and hotter than jalapeños and serranos. Making them into a salsa is a good way to learn what they taste like, and to learn how many you might want to add (tip: start with only a few). I’ve found jalapeños aren’t consistently spicy, for instance, so I like using serranos in my green salsas.
  • Store it in an airtight container. Salsa will keep in the fridge for about a week. It will mellow out as the days go on, though, and it always tastes the best on the first day. 

Lesley Téllez is a journalist, entrepreneur, and Mexican cookbook author living in New York City. She’s the author of Eat Mexico: Recipes from Mexico City’s Streets, Markets and Fondas and the co-founder of Eat Mexico. This story is part of a multi-story, multi-recipe package by Lesley sharing her personal, family-friendly approach to Weeknight Mexican