Fresh Salsa: Easy, Fast and Delicious

by sockii

Salsa: it goes great with more than just chips! Salsa can be used to dress up steaks, seafood and poultry dishes and it's easy to make from a variety of different fresh ingredients

Fresh salsa is so easy to make there's no reason to ever buy premade processed salsas ever again.

While the classic Mexican salsa is usually based around tomatoes, there's no need to limit yourself. Many different fruits can be the basis of a delicious salsa, from tropical pineapple and mango to New Jersey summer peaches and blueberries! There are only a few basic "rules" to follow as far as elements to include in order to get that tangy-sweet-spicy flavor just right. By keeping those in mind, you can come up with wonderful salsas limited only by your imagination—and what's in your refrigerator.

What exactly IS salsa?

A basic introduction

Salsa and ChipsThe Spanish word "salsa" simply translates as "sauce" and indeed can be found in variations throughout world cuisine. Of course, many of us are familiar with traditional Mexican salsas, of which there are several popular varieties including

  • Salsa fresca - made primarily from raw tomatoes, onions, lime juice, chili peppers and cilantro
  • Salsa ranchera - made from cooked tomatoes, various peppers, and spices
  • Salsa verde - made from (typically) cooked tomatillos and other ingredients
  • Salsa negra- a "black" salsa made from dried, roasted chili peppers, oil and garlic

Some other popular sauces from other cuisines which could fall under the "salsa" category include:

  • South American chimihurri - a spicy condiment featuring fresh parsley, onion, garlic and various spices
  • Mojo - a thin sauce with variations in Puerto Rican, Cuban and Portuguese cuisine featuring olive oil, garlic, citrus fruit and spices
  • Piri piri sauce - another salsa with Portuguese roots now popular throughout Africa featuring crushed chilis, citrus and various spices

Salsas in used in these cuisines in many different ways:

  • As a dip for chips, bread and vegetables
  • As a marinade for seafood, chicken and meats or a condiment for serving them once cooked
  • As a topping for eggs, salads, warm vegetable dishes, or even cooked pastas
  • However you like to enjoy them!

Salsa can be mild to very spicy, chunky or smooth, cooked or entirely raw. That's what makes salsa so versatile—if you prepare it yourself you can adjust the flavor and heat exactly to your liking!

While there are so many variations as to what makes something a "salsa", I've found there are a six crucial elements that you'll want to have in order to get the right balance of flavor for most uses. I'll break them down below.

Image above: Salsa and chips: a classic combination. Source: javcon on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

Flavor Elements of Salsa

The 6 building blocks of a delicious dip or condiment

1. Fruit

Something sweet to be your flavor base
The fruit stand
The fruit stand

Of course the classic fruit (yes, it's a fruit) for salsa is the tomato, either raw or cooked. But there are many others that make for a great salsa base: mango, papaya, kiwi, pineapple, peaches, plums, berries, cucumber, melons, even pomegranate!

What you want is a fruit that has some firmness and texture; something too soft like, say, a banana, is going to be difficult to get an appealing texture from in your salsa. The fruit will likely be the primary color base for your salsa and will help guide you with the other elements you'll want to include. Also think about how you are planning on using your salsa: tropical fruit salsas are tasty on grilled seafood and chicken; melon and summer-fruit salsas are great for parties for a change from classic chips and dips. Peach salsa goes great with grilled pork and cucumber salsa with lamb and Greek-inspired dishes.

2. Heat

What's a salsa without some chili peppers?
Chiles at the Market - Seattle
Chiles at the Market - Seattle

Chile peppers: they come in all different varieties and heat intensities. Some are mild and smokey; some will burn a trail down your throat! You can get fresh chile peppers and dried chile peppers; you can roast them either way to add depth to their flavor or add them fresh for crunch and raw power.

Dried chile peppers can be used in several ways in salsas. You may grill or roast them first, and then soak in hot water for 20-30 minutes to soften. Leaving in the seeds will intensity their heat. Experiment and find which types of chiles and hot peppers you like best with different fruits; I find I like dried, red chiles like Fresno or Chipotle with tropical fruit like pineapple and mango to add a smoky element; fresh serrano and jalapenos seem just suited for tomato-based salsas.

The main thing is to find something to balance the sweetness of the fruit with the spiciness of the pepper. Taste, sample and learn about the many varieties of dried and fresh chiles available today and you'll start to see which flavors work best together.

3. Acid

Citrus or vinegar: your choice for tartness
Citrus
Citrus

Just about all salsas call for some kind of acidic ingredient as part of their flavor profile. That generally means either lemon or lime juice, although other recipes may call for red wine or apple cider vinegar for a different kind of flavor.

Which should you use? For the freshest, liveliest taste with primarily raw ingredients I generally prefer citrus juice (and possibly a bit of grated lime or lemon zest as well.) Sometimes a cooked salsa works best with vinegar, or one you are going to let rest and blend together for several hours or overnight before serving.

4. Allium

That means onion, garlic, or some combination!
Alliums
Alliums

Most versions of salsa will also include some edible member of the Allium family: that is, onions, scallions, chives, shallots and/or garlic. These pungent ingredients pack a "punch" and often add a touch of crunch as well as their strong flavor to a salsa.

That said, onion varieties and garlic should not be over-used in a salsa and should be added in harmony with other ingredients. As someone with an intolerance to raw garlic, I generally leave it out of my salsas or only use it if roasted or sauteed first—this makes the flavor more complex and mellow as well. Onions can be added raw or after roasting on a grill pan to give them a smoky element; soaking raw onion in cold water for 15 minutes before mixing in to a salsa can also take out some of the pungency that can upset some stomachs.

Scallions (green onions) and chives may be preferable when you want to add a very mild onion element as well as a touch of green; I like scallions in pomegranate salsa or with stone fruit, and red onion with yellow fruit like mango for the color contrast.

5. Green Herbs

Cilantro isn't your only option
Fresh herbs on my balcony
Fresh herbs on my balcony

Another element you'll find in most salsas is some kind of green herb, most commonly cilantro. Also known as coriander, this plant is used in all kinds of culinary applications as its leaves (most commonly used in salsa), stems and seeds are all edible and tasty. Cilantro tends to add a slightly citrus flavor to dishes, which explains why it so often works so well in salsas.

But some people hate cilantro, finding it has a "soapy" flavor (it's likely a genetic thing.) And there's no need to limit yourself as other green herbs can work well in salsas, too and give it different touches of flavor. For a more Italian-style salsa, try using flat-leaf parsley or fresh basil instead of cilantro, especially for a tomato-based or more savory-than-sweet salsa. Or, use fresh mint for a more Mediterranean flair when making a salsa from mango, pineapple, or summer stone fruit.

Another option? Combine cilantro and parsley, parsley and basil, or cilantro and mint for a more complex balance.

6. Salt

Don't try to make a salsa without it!
Salts
Salts

Finally, there's one ingredient that you'll need to add to just about every salsa: salt!

No, don't try to get around it; salt enhances flavor and at least a small pinch is needed (sometimes more than that) to really make your salsa's flavor sing. The more savory your salsa, the more you'll want to add salt, although even a very fruity mango or peach salsa can benefit from a light sprinkle before serving. Just add it slowly as a final ingredient, and allow time for the ingredients to blend and merge together before adjusting the final seasoning.

Try, however, to use a good quality sea salt or even a smoked, flavored salt to give your salsa a unique edge. I love the specialty salts from Salts of the Earth, which are perfect as finishing seasonings and offer such unique varieties as Carolina Hickory Smoked and Habanero Lovers—perfect for hot 'n spicy salsas!

Optional additions

Other ingredients to "spice up" your salsa!
some black bean salsa
some black bean salsa

Beyond these six elemental factors, there are other ingredients you might consider adding to your salsa to make them more substantial or add a different element of flavor.

Beans

You can add cooked beans to a salsa to turn it into a more substantial side dish or "dips" for chips, especially if you want to make a light yet nutritious vegetarian meal or side dish. Black beans and black-eyed peas work especially well in such uses because of their delicate size and dramatic colors.

Bell peppers

Peppers in a salsa don't have to be spicy; sweet bell peppers in a variety of colors can be added to bring an additional crisp and summer flavor to a salsa. You can also char the peppers over a grill or under a broiler to soften them and add a richer flavor.

Sugar or Honey

Some fruit-based salsas can benefit from a little extra touch of sweetness—even in lieu of adding any salt. I have sometimes found this to be the case with berry-based salsas and others where the sweet-and-spicy flavors need to take precedence over any savory elements. Always add such flavors slowly, tasting as you go just as you would add the salt. You don't want to overwhelm the salsa with sweetness, but sometimes it can help bring the right balance.

Alcohol

Yes, believe it or not some salsas can benefit from a judicious splash of spirits: rum, tequila, or perhaps a touch of bourbon. I especially like doing this when I'm serving the salsa as a topping on grilled meats, which may have been marinated with these same spirits in the mix.

Additional spices

Some salsas can benefit from the addition of other spices such as ground cumin, cayenne or black pepper, or even a touch of cinnamon. Just try not to add more than one or two additional spices to the basic mixture, and pick those that complement the other ingredients well.

Olive Oil

Sometimes a salsa can benefit from a touch of olive oil as well, in order to held blend together the flavors and if it seems too "dry".

Some of my favorite salsa combinations

These are just a few ideas...

  • Italian tomato salsa: fresh tomatoes, yellow onion, green bell peppers, parsley, red wine vinegar, olive oil, salt and dried red chili pepper
  • Tropical mango salsa: mango, lime juice and zest, toasted Guajillo chile, red onion, cilantro, salt
  • Pomegranate salsa: pomegranate arils, lime juice, fresh serrano pepper, green onions, cilantro, salt
  • Peach salsa: peaches, lime juice, fresh jalapeno pepper, red onion, honey, cilantro, salt
  • Red plum salsa: red plums, lime juice, serrano pepper, red onion, mint, salt
  • Cucumber salsa: cucumbers, lemon juice, jalapeno pepper, white onion, dill, salt
  • Corn salsa: Grilled corn, red bell peppers, poblano pepper, red onion, red wine vinegar, cilantro, cayenne pepper, salt

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Updated: 10/26/2015, sockii
 
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Mira on 04/15/2015

Your article is full of great ideas. I haven't tried salsa with fruit (papaya, peach, pomegranate) but I can see why it would work; I've only tasted salsa with mango once (and loved it). I will refer back to your article as I try various salsa recipes in the future.

sockii on 04/14/2015

I generally don't buy grocery store salsa because I don't know what they put in it. I'm really sensitive/intolerant to raw garlic and that seems to be really common in store salsa, for one thing. But yes, it is definitely a step above the jarred/canned stuff, that's for certain.

AngelaJohnson on 04/14/2015

If you have a chance to buy FRESH salsa in the grocery store and compare it to canned salsa, you'll never buy it canned (or in jars) again. But making your own salsa is even better because you can experiment with all sorts of ingredients - and it's cheaper. Fresh and homemade salsa is the way to go.

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