When you think of salsa, what do you think of? Maybe it's fresh pico de gallo, restaurant-style tomato salsa, or a roasted green tomatilla salsa. There's no shortage of traditional Mexican salsas to enjoy! Whether you eat them with chips or atop a taco, these salsas are must-tries.
What makes a salsa a salsa?
It’s hard to really define salsa — there seem to be endless variations. I once thought “salsa” only referred to the chunky, tomato-based and lightly spiced condiment I ate plenty of as a child, but there is much more beyond this classic version.
Many types of salsa get their deep flavor from dried chiles. Some char the peppers over the fire to impart a hot, smoky taste in the finished salsa. Some are smooth, while others are chunky. Some require the assistance of a cold beverage to tame the heat, while some simply warm the mouth with a soft spice. Many use tomatoes as their base, while others rely on the papery husk-covered tomatillos. Regardless, they all do wonders to liven a taco.
Traditionally, salsas are made in a molcajete , which is similar to a mortar and pestle but with a coarse interior. Here the ingredients are pounded together created a richly flavored salsa. If you don't have a molcajete, you can enlist the help of a food processor or blender when making salsas.
Different types of Mexican salsas
We could be here all day going over the many variations but instead, I thought I’d point out a few of the most common.
Pico de gallo
This is the one type of salsa that most commonly comes to mind in America when someone says "salsa." It’s chunky, tomato-heavy and loaded with fresh ingredients like onion, cilantro, garlic and jalapeño. It’s reminiscent of a chopped salad — in fact, I love this on salads. I take mine heavy on lime and with a good amount of heat.
Get a classic pico de gallo recipe plus instructions for making it in Mexican Street Food: Tacos & Salsas .
I love the smoky, intense flavor of salsa negra, which is made with roasted tomatoes and peppers and dried chilies. I love the robust smokiness of guajillos, but you can play around to find your favorite pepper for your salsa.
When you're working with dried chilies ,you need to rehydrate them in boiling water: Completely submerge the chilies for 15 minutes until they are soft and pliable. From there, drain them, then removing the stem and seeds. Keep the soaking liquid to use in the salsa to thin it out.
Add the rehydrated chilies to a blender along with oil, garlic and a bit of the soaking liquid. You can also add fresh lime juice and cilantro to brighten up the flavor.
This is another tomato-based salsa, but here the tomatoes are cooked and then blended with onions, garlic, cilantro, jalapeño and lime.
Also known as "green salsa," it's made with cooked tomatillos and chiles. My favorite has you roast tomatillos and garlic in a hot, dry pan until they are sufficiently charred. Those go into a blender along with cilantro, lime juice, and onion. This is my go-to base for chilaquiles .
Get a classic salsa verde recipe in Mexican Comfort Food: Enchiladas, Tamales & Rellenos .
Yes, it’s a salsa and quite possibly my favorite. For taqueria-style guacamole, puree the avocados for a thin, smooth guacamole. Personally, my preference is chunky style — sort of like a pico de gallo except with big, buttery bites of avocado. I like it heavy on the garlic and lime and with a good bit of toasted cumin throughout.
Get a classic guacamole recipe from renowned chef Rick Bayless in Essentials of Mexican Cooking .