Pico de Gallo

published Jul 7, 2024
Pico de Gallo Recipe

My secret to the best pico de gallo? Let it marinate for 20 minutes.

Serves4 to 6

Makes3 1/2 cups

Prep15 minutes to 20 minutes

Jump to Recipe
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Pico de Gallo in bowl on wood grain surface
Credit: Photo: Erik Bernstein; Food Styling: Spencer Richards

Pico de gallo is a freshly diced “salsa cruda” or raw salsa made of tomato, onion, jalapeño, cilantro, and lime juice (it’s also known as salsa bandera or salsa fresca in certain regions of Mexico). I’ve had my fair share of pico de gallo over the years. But there was one that stood out the most. At a restaurant I worked at in Oakland, California, known for serving seasonal Mexican cuisine using local ingredients, the cooks only made the pico de gallo every two days. 

Why? Because the longer pico de gallo was held, the more delicious it was. The lime juice “cooks” the ingredients, tenderizing them in the process. Meanwhile, the salt pulls the juices from the ingredients, which adds even more flavor. The result is the freshest, juiciest salsa you’ll ever taste. 

Don’t limit this pico de gallo to only being enjoyed with tortilla chips. Add it on top of white rice with fresh greens. Eat it over egg tacos in the morning. Fold it into a tuna salad over a tostada for lunch. There are so many ways to enjoy the tart flavors and textural joy of pico de gallo. 

Why You’ll Love It 

  • The longer it sits, the better it gets. Thanks to the acid from the limes and macerating action of salt, pico de gallo is a dish that gets better as it sits. Similar to the concept of a ceviche, you must let the ingredients mingle before serving for the best results. What’s even better is that you are left with a tart, herbaceous “tomato water” that you can spoon over dishes or drink straight from the bowl.
  • It adds a fresh element to everything. Pico de gallo isn’t spicy (unless you want it to be). The refreshing flavor comes from the tomatoes and lime juice. It’s a great addition anytime you need to balance out a meal with some tart freshness. 
Credit: Photo: Erik Bernstein; Food Styling: Spencer Richards

Key Ingredients in Pico de Gallo

  • Tomato: Tomatoes are the star of pico de gallo as the juice will be used to marinate most of the ingredients as it slowly gets pulled from the tomato. Grab red romas that are ripe with a slight give and are vivid in color. They should be firm enough for you to dice. If they are too soft or sunken in around the edges, they will not cut properly. During tomato season, heirlooms or early girls are even better for this recipe. (A serrated paring knife is your best friend when it comes to dicing tomatoes. I use a Victorinox serrated paring knife, which you can find affordably on Amazon.)
  • Onions: Onions give pico de gallo its crunch. I personally love to use yellow onions as they are firmer and stronger in flavor than white, which means they will hold up better after sitting in lime juice and salt.
  • Lime juice: Lime juice is responsible for breaking down the ingredients and allowing them to marinate better. Grab limes that are vivid green that have give to them when pressed. Do not buy hard limes or limes with brown spots as the flavor will be compromised. 
  • Chiles: Traditionally pico de gallo is made with jalapenos. They add mild heat to the salsa, which is crucial to balance out the tart flavors. My personal preference is substituting the jalapeño for two serranos for more heat (no need to deseed). 
  • Cilantro: Cilantro adds an herbaceous flavor note to the pico de gallo. Utilizing the tender stems adds more crunch and difference in textures. Shop for cilantro that is dark green in color with perky leaves and sturdy stems. It should feel lively, not withered. 

How to Make Pico de Gallo

  1. Cut your ingredients. Dice tomatoes and onion into medium-size pieces. Dice jalapeños into small pieces. Chop cilantro leaves including the tender stems.
  2. Juice the limes. Juice limes and make sure to strain out any pith. 
  3. Mix together and let sit. Mix all ingredients with salt and let them hang out in the refrigerator for 20 minutes. Mix them one more time before serving. 
Credit: Photo: Erik Bernstein; Food Styling: Spencer Richards

The History of Pico de Gallo 

It is said that pico de gallo may have come from the regions of the Yucatan Peninsula, Sonora, Guanajuato, or Oaxaca. The name translates to “Rooster’s beak.” There is no shortage of stories when it comes to the origin of the name. One of my favorite theories is that the ingredients resemble small pieces of chicken food. It resonates with me the most as back home on my grandparents ranch in California we feed the chickens scraps of veggies we cook with. Oftentimes those scraps are from jalapeños, tomato, onion, and cilantro.

Helpful Swaps

  • Swap 2 jalapeños for 2 serranos if you want a spicier pico de gallo.
  • Swap lime for lemons if you want all the acid but not the lime flavor. 

Storage and Make-Ahead tips 

  • Dice all ingredients and hold separately a day before serving. Squeeze lime juice the day of. 
  • Refrigerate in an airtight container for up to 3 days. The lime juice will begin to lose its fresh flavor after two days, and the texture of the pico de gallo will soften a bit too much after day three.

What to Serve with Pico de Gallo

I personally love eating pico de gallo with any dish that has rice, protein, and a side salad. If your dish needs a boost of acid and a refreshing component, then add some pico de gallo to it. Here are some ideas to get you started:

Pico de Gallo Recipe

My secret to the best pico de gallo? Let it marinate for 20 minutes.

Prep time 15 minutes to 20 minutes

Makes 3 1/2 cups

Serves 4 to 6

Nutritional Info

Ingredients

  • 1 pound

    roma tomatoes (4 medium)

  • 1

    large yellow onion

  • 2

    medium jalapeño peppers

  • 1/2

    medium bunch fresh cilantro

  • 3

    medium limes

  • 1 teaspoon

    kosher salt, plus more as needed

Instructions

  1. Prepare the following, adding each to the same medium bowl as you complete it: Dice 1 pound roma tomatoes (about 2 cups). Dice 1 large yellow until you have about 2 cups. Trim and remove the seeds from 2 medium jalapeño peppers, then cut into small dice (about 1/4 cup). Coarsely chop the leaves and tender stems of 1/2 medium bunch fresh cilantro until you have 1 cup. Juice 3 medium limes (about 1/2 cup) and strain out any pith.

  2. Add 1 teaspoon kosher salt and stir until combined. Refrigerate until the tomatoes release some juice and everything looks a bit softened, about 20 minutes. Stir again before serving. Taste and season with more kosher salt as needed.

Recipe Notes

Substitutions: For a spicier pico de gallo, use 2 deseeded serrano peppers instead of jalapeños. For a summer pico de gallo, use 1 pound heirloom tomatoes instead of roma.

Make ahead: The tomatoes, onion, jalapeño, and cilantro can be chopped up to 1 day ahead and refrigerated in separate airtight containers. About 20 minutes before serving, juice the limes and combine all the ingredients.

Storage: Refrigerate in an airtight container for up to 3 days. The lime juice will begin to lose its fresh flavor after 2 days, and the texture of the pico de gallo will soften.