What Makes A Great Salsa? Salsas and Mexican Cooking

We’ve been discussing Tacos on @Luluthemagnificent’s Help me make good tacos! thread. Some mentioned that it’s all about great Salsa. So, I became curious. What makes a great Salsa? Do you have a favorite Salsa recipe? A favorite Restaurant Salsa? Do you like Cooked or Fresh? Blended or Chunky? Do you like lime or no lime in Tomatillo Salsa Verde? Okay, you get it…

Paging @DiningDiva @JeetKuneBao @aaqjr @Dommy @ebethsdad, @Chowseeker1999 @PorkyBelly @Nemroz… am I forgetting anyone? Okay, basically paging Taco Lovers!

Edited to include Mexican cooking!


Maybe not the answer you are looking for but first thing that came to mind making Salsa with my mom is her saying that a salsa was ‘desabrido’ needs more salt usually but could be something else needed to wake it up.

It always surprised me the amount of seasoing salsa takes before it really pops.


No, it’s exactly the kinds of things I’m looking for. :slightly_smiling_face: I agree with Mom. It took me a while to realize that’s what was wrong with my salsas. I can be a salt complainer, but salty salsa is a must!

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But -what makes a great salsa is such a hard question to answer because like wine a lot of what makes something great is how well it goes with what you are eating.

Did you say something about lime in a tomatillo salsa?! Definitely no for me. Especially raw they already have a very lime flavor.

One of my favorites from the old rec.food.cooking days was a salsa de serrano frito. Wish i remembered who posted it back in the day. But it is fabulous with came asada

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Yah, I never really thought about it and assumed part of the tang in Tomatillo Salsa came from lime. Then I started looking up recipes and saw most don’t include lime. I must admit to preferring lime, but I’m a citrus nut.


if you leave some less cooked you’ll get more of that flavor.

Growing up we always used chile guero (the yellow chile) for our house blender salsa. I don’t see a lot of other Mexicans using it like that. It tends to be less spicy but I still really like the flavor. As we got older Mom added serranos to the mix to keep us from inhaling it so fast.

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This is from one of my moms friends: *note: usually the guajillo and pasilla get seeded but not the arbol. you can experiment with how much toast or char you want on the dried chiles.

Chile Miriam

Tomatillo 20 ea
Tomato, Roma 4 ea
Chile Guajillo 4 ea
Chile de arbol 30-40ea (abo 1 cup)
Chile Pasilla 2 ea
garlic 2 cloves
Cilantro (0ptional)

Boil Tomatoes, tomatillos and garlic until soft and blend. Reserve water.

Toast and Blend chilies separately with reserved water (as needed).

Combine to taste and add salt.


Sounds great. The only one of the chiles I have that isn’t already ground is Chile de Arbol… back to the store for me!

I made my own salsas for years, and still make a salsa fresca when my tomatoes go crazy in late July. But we live a mile away from a Vallarta market which has spoiled me. Its so easy to pick up their excellent salsa verde (as long as you don’t get the mild stuff), or salsa roja that I don’t often take the time anymore to make my own. They have also spoiled my for making tortillas; why make my own when I can pop in there and pick up a bag still warm from the griddle?
That said @aaqjr’s recipe looks great.


I totally feel ya’!

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Okay, there’s another distinguishing factor - cooked or fresh. I need to do some research on this… with my tongue! To see which I prefer. Sometimes I find it’s kinda’ slimy and I wonder if that’s from cooking. I’m thinking I might like it less cooked, fresh and with lime. But what do I know? I’m from New England. :thinking:

Funny Mama story, btw!

Btw you can always freeze extra salsa if you need too.

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Okay, great. I was looking at that recipe and it seemed like a lot and I usually mess things up when I try to half or double recipes.

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I make a lot of salsas at home, it’s a pretty fun and relatively simple way to add personal flair to your pantry/snack selection. My basic go-to is a version of this very old recipe from Esdras Ochoa of Mexicali/Salazar:

Salsa Tatemada From: Esdras Ochoa of Mexicali Taco & Co.
Makes: A decent-sized bowl.

8 Roma tomatoes
1 medium/large onion
4-8 Serrano peppers (depending on desired spice level)
1 bunch of cilantro
4 cloves of garlic
1/4 cup of white vinegar
sea salt

  1. Roast the tomatoes & peppers on an open fire or in a skillet over high heat.
  2. Pulse all of the ingredients together in a blender, looking for a chunky consistency.

These days I usually use habanero instead of Serrano (better flavor, reminds me of visits to Quintano Roo), and I tend to roast the tomatoes, onion, garlic, and chilis in the oven instead of charring on a skillet (gives it some depth and draws out sweetness/savoriness in a way that I like). I also add lime juice, and sometimes I’ll toss in some tomatillos or guajillo or whatever’s handy. But that’s the broad sketch.

There’s also this one, from Chef Avila of Guerrilla Tacos, that’s a pretty fantastic canvas for playing with:

Chile (A Sauce For Tacos)
Recipe by chef Wes Avila, Guerilla Tacos

3 cups fresh tomatillos milperos
7 garlic cloves
2 Habanero chiles
2 Serrano chiles
5 limes
1 cup fresh cilantro
2 tbs. Kosher salt

  1. Soak tomatillos in warm water and remove husk. Place tomatillos In cold water and rinse twice. Set aside.

  2. Wash and de-stem the chiles, rinse in cold water.

  3. Cut about 1/3 of root side of cilantro off and discard. Wash remaining 2/3 cilantro under cold water.

  4. Place all ingredients in food processor. Juice limes into the food processor. Pulse to incorporate ingredients.

  5. Blend on high speed until well mixed.

  6. Adjust seasoning to taste

Avila notes that “this chile is excellent on seafood and great on grilled meats.” Use within two days for best flavor.


Your mother was spot on.

Chiles, and specifically, dried chiles LOVE salt. The flavor “blooms” when the chile/salt ratio is right.

Way back in 2002 (or maybe it was 2003) I did a weeklong series of classes with Rick Bayless and Ricardo Munoz Zurita (Google him if you don’t know who he is) offered through the Culinary Institute of America, Greystone. I think there were about 20 of us all together. Rick generally did a class in the morning and evening and Ricardo in the afternoon. I remember the first session. When it came time to season whatever it was he was making, Rick added salt, then added some more salt, then added even more salt. You could see most of the people in the class beginning to blanch at the quantity they thought he was using. Even I thought he’d gone over the edge, but when we finally got to taste, it was perfect and not salty.

Ricardo explained why the salt was necessary later that day and they tag teamed that particular message the rest of the week. Other Mexican chefs - professional and home - that I’ve had the pleasure of taking classes with have also hammered home that message. Chiles need salt to reach their full flavor potential.

There is an easy experiment you can do to see for yourself. Take a few chiles, 2 or 3 guajillos and a chile de arbol, seed and devein (or not if you like heat), toast, and soak. Drain and put into a blender with a little fresh water, enough to blend to a smooth, pourable paste, about like Heinz ketchup. If you don’t have a high speed blender, pass the chile paste through a fine seive to get rid of any skin or other residue.

Put it in a bowl and then taste a little. It’s not going to taste very good. The flavor will be flat and possily even somewhat bitter. Then add about a 1 teaspoon of salt and mix well. Taste it again. You should be a noticeable change in the taste, but it still won’t be great. Add a 1/2 tsp more, mix and taste. The flavor should improve again Add another 1/2 tsp, mix and taste, it should be significantly better, but you’re not there yet. Decrease the salt to 1/4 tsp and continue adding, mixing and tasting. At some point you will reach the right balance and the flavor will “bloom” and you should be able to really taste the difference. It takes way more salt than you think, so don’t be timid. When the flavor is balanced, it should be full and round in the mouth.

I’ve also found the chiles need salt idea is necessary for salsas that aren’t table salsas, such as mole or pipian. Adding enough salt brings their flavors to life as well.

Sorry this is a little long, but we Americans have been taught that salt is not our friend and to be wary of it. It’s a vital ingredient in Mexican cuisine and not excessive


Excellent. I like the white vinegar and the roasting idea on the Salsa Tatemada, and Chef Avila’s fresh salsa. Thanks!


Very well said.

Not to me. Always an education from you. It’s interesting about the mole, and that it’s the chiles not the tomatoes so much that need the salt. I’m all for a lot salt if it’s necessary, but I think some restaurant chefs or their crew become tongue blind to salt and carelessly cover up flavor with too much of it.

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I like salsa verde almost any way, but prefer it raw to cooked. It works with almost anything. The recipe I use is from Roberto Santibanez from his book Truly Mexican (which is very good, BTW)

1/2# tomatillos, husked and chopped
1/2 C chopped cilantro
2 serrano chiles, seeded, or not, depending upon how hot you want it
2 Tbls white onion, chopped
I lg. garlic clove
3/4 tsp fine sea salt of 1 1/2 tsp kosher salt

Put it all in the blender and blend until very smooth. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed.

I like working with dried chiles. They’re pretty easy once you get used to it. Ancho, cascabel, mecos (chipotles) and pasillas (dried chilaca, not a fresh poblano) are some of my favorites. I’m not a huge fan of guajillos but they bring a nice sharpness and bit of bitterness to a blend of chiles. They work especially well with anchos which tend to be sweet. With the dried chiles I’m more likely to be using them as part of a dish and not as a table sauce.

Years ago Rick Bayless put out a small book (long before he was famous) called Salsas That Cook. It’s a slim book with 8 basic salsa recipes in the first chapter and then 50 recipes for using those salsas as the rest of the book. What was unique about this book was that each basic salsa had 3 different yields; the ingreidents were listed and there are colums for each yield with the ingredient quantity. In a side bar to each salsa recipe, chile substitutes and swaps were suggested. And at the end of each recipe he indicated which recipes the salsa would pair well with. I’ve made at least half the salsa recipes and quite a few of the other non-salsa recipes in the book and they’re solid. I think this is one of the most underrated books out there. It’s a good starting point for someone interested in learning about chiles, salsa and basic Mexican cooking.


Srsly…those are some great salsa recipes! Thanks for posting them.