When you hear the word salsa what likely comes to mind is a red dip served with tortilla chips or as a condiment for tacos and other Mexican and Mexican-American foods. And while the word encompasses much more than that—it translates as simply “sauce” and there are many different kinds of salsa—for the sake of this article, we will focus primarily on that tasty tomato-based bowl of goodness.
Most red salsas are made with tomatoes (of course) as well as onion, garlic, jalapeño, cilantro, and lime juice. Salt and spices seasonings, such as chili powder or cumin, may be added as well.
If the salsa is made with raw ingredients, it’s considered a fresh salsa, which can go by the name salsa crudo, salsa fresca, or even pico de gallo.
If some or all of the ingredients are cooked, it’s known as salsa roja.
And though the name might not sound familiar to everyone reading this, salsa roja is the style you most often encounter whether in a jar on the supermarket shelf or on the table at your favorite Mexican restaurant. Many are simply made with canned tomatoes, which because of canning are considered cooked. Other versions might puree the ingredients and then simmer them.
Plum tomatoes (Romas are one variety) are hard to beat when it comes to making salsa. When making fresh salsa, you want meaty tomatoes, not watery ones. “Paste” tomatoes, aka plum tomatoes, or, if in Italy, San Marzanos, tend to have thick flesh with fewer seeds, making them great for dicing and chopping. They will also create thicker, less watery sauces.
Meaty beefsteak tomatoes are another good choice. Though they have ample seeds, they are easy to seed. (Simply slice them in half along the equator and scoop the seeds and pulp out with your fingers.)
Heirloom varieties can boost the tomato flavor, but come with a high price tag and so may be best saved for dishes in which they are featured raw and as the star.
Skip the grape and cherry tomatoes. They have a lot of skin-to-flesh ratio and don’t break down as well when cooked.
There are (at least) two ways to add smoky flavor to salsa.
Smoke the vegetables over low heat. To get the boldest wood-fired flavor, smoke the tomatoes, as well as the jalapeño, and even the garlic, on your Traeger over low heat. To do so, place the whole vegetables on a rimmed baking sheet. Smoke them at 225°F with Super Smoke if available. At this temperature it may take as long as 90 minutes for the vegetables to become tender enough to puree.
Char over high heat. This quicker method will give your salsa a more roasted, less smoky flavor. To char the vegetables, cook them on the Traeger over high heat (450°F to 500°F) until tender and charred in spots.
Or do a little of both. You can also smoke the veg first for a bit and then crank the heat.
If you like hot, leave the jalapeno intact. If you like your salsa mild, you will want to not only seed your jalapeños but also remove their remove their inner ribs, which contain most of their heat. It may seem obvious, but you should remove the hard stem of the pepper either way,
For a salsa that’s perfect for tortilla chips or dolloping on a taco, consider pureeing the cooked ingredients.
You can do it the traditional Mexican way by grinding the ingredients in a molcajete (a large mortar and pestle usually made from volcanic rock). Salsa made in a molcajete may have a chunkier texture but fans say a purer flavor. Alternatively, you can chop the ingredients by hand.
For pureed salsa, use a food process or blender and pulse to your desired consistency.
The deep roasty flavor of smoked salsa benefits from fresh ingredients added before serving.
One key fresh ingredient: lime juice. It not only adds its own zingy flavor, but its acidity corrals other flavors and brings them to the forefront. Don’t have limes on hand? Lemon will work, too, as would a little vinegar.
Fresh cilantro (never, ever dried) is another must-add for the best salsa. In our opinion, the more cilantro, the merrier.
Chopped raw onion gives salsa a bold punch. While some folks like to char the onion along with the tomatoes and jalapeños, we prefer the kick of finely chopped raw onion. Red ones not only add flavor but also color. Mild white onions are your next best choice and sliced scallions would work in a pinch. If you only have the stronger yellow onions on hand, soak them in ice water to tame them some before adding to the salsa. Sweet onions, like Vidalias, would get ambushed by the other ingredients in salsa and so are not really worth adding.
Season your salsa generously with salt. When used correctly, salt should bring out flavors and unify them—and not make the dish taste salty. For the best flavor, use kosher salt or sea salt over table salt as the iodine in the latter can affect the flavor of your salsa.
The last step to making salsa may be the easiest. Once, you have smoked, charred, pureed, chopped, and tossed, you want to let the salsa sit for a bit to allow the flavors to meld and become something greater than their parts. If possible, don’t serve the salsa for at least an hour. It can even be made a day ahead and refrigerated and will only taste better for it. Before serving refrigerated salsa, let it warm up a bit as cold mutes flavors.
While making smoked salsa takes more time than opening a jar, the wood-fired anf fresh flavors are definitly worth the effort.
For a mix of smokly char and fresh zingy flavor, this easy-to-make salsa is hard to beat.
Peaches replace tomatoes in this super summery take.
Canned tomaotoes make this an easy salsa to whip up in no time.