Classic with Tortilla Chips
Salsa and Picante are the most popular Mexican/Tex-Mex sauces in the US. They share a flavor profile and contain largely identical ingredients.
Best of all, both are easy to make. And the home-prepared versions have w-a-y better flavor than those jarred sauces sold at the supermarket.
So with Cinco de Mayo just around the corner, how about mixing up some Salsa or Picante to accompany all the great Mexican food you’ll be eating?
Both salsa and picante are made from tomatoes and chilies. So what’s the difference between the two? Basically, “salsa” tends to be thick and chunky, while “picante” is thinner and soupier.
There are some other variations, as you’ll note below. But for the way most of us use these sauces (as a dip for chips or as a condiment on anything we choose), that’s not an unreasonable way to think about them.
Recipe: Salsa & Pico De Gallo
Salsa is Spanish for sauce. When someone says “salsa,” most of us think tomatoes. But you can make salsa from almost anything: tomatillos, dried chilies, corn, mangoes, or pineapple, for example. You can even make Peach Salsa. But tomato salsa is the most common. You can make it with fresh tomatoes or canned, and cook it or not.
When made only from fresh tomatoes, chilies, onion, and cilantro — and left uncooked — salsa is frequently called Salsa Cruda or Pico de Gallo (which translates as rooster’s beak; and no, I don’t know for sure how it got that name). This is salsa at its simplest. But there are hundreds of salsas out there — Roasted Tomato Salsa, Chipotle Salsa, Guajillo Chile Salsa, and on and on. It’s easy to add more ingredients to basic salsa and achieve a more complicated flavor.
In this recipe, we’re making a fresh salsa — Pico de Gallo. If you learn how to make this version, you’ll know the principles and method for making virtually any other salsa.
Although I give quantities in this recipe, you can adjust ingredients and amounts to suit your individual palate. In fact, I rarely make fresh salsa exactly the same way twice. Salsas are fun to play around with in the kitchen.
Diana Kennedy has an excellent chapter on salsas in The Cuisines of Mexico. I borrowed some of her basic ideas for salsa making when I developed my recipe.
This recipe yields a bit over a cup. You can easily scale it up if you need more. Fresh salsa is best when first made. Although it will keep in a covered container in the refrigerator for a few days, its flavor loses some sparkle.
- 1 cup chopped fresh tomato (one medium-to-large tomato)
- ¼ cup diced onion (or to taste; white onion or scallions are particularly nice in this recipe)
- 2 - 3 tablespoons cilantro, washed, stemmed, and minced (or to taste; some people like less than this)
- 1 jalapeño pepper, washed, seeded, and minced (or 1 - 2 Serrano peppers, which are hotter)
- salt and pepper to taste
- Wash tomato and chop into dice of about ½ inch or a bit less. You can seed it if you like, but there’s no need to. Add to a medium-sized mixing bowl.
- Dice onion and add to the bowl.
- Wash, stem, and finely mince cilantro, then add to the bowl.
- Wash jalapeño pepper and cut lengthwise. Use a teaspoon to scoop out the ribs and seeds (be careful, the oil on these is hot; keep fingers away from your eyes). Chop into very small dice. Add to the bowl, and then wash your hands with soap and water to remove the hot jalapeño oil from your skin.
- Mix together. Add salt and pepper to taste.
- Your Salsa is ready! And it’s at its best right now. But you can also put it in an airtight container, and let rest in the refrigerator an hour or three before using. You can even use it the next day, although some of its flavor will have faded (it’ll still be good, though).
You can use fresh tomatoes for Picante Sauce, but I generally use canned. As with Salsa, ingredients and quantities are highly variable in Picante Sauce. Make it the way you like it.
This recipe is adapted from Cooking Texas Style by Candy Wagner and Sandra Marquez. You can easily scale it up if you need more. Leftovers will keep in a covered container in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks.
- 1 15-ounce can of diced tomatoes
- 1 small onion
- 2 - 3 cloves of garlic, peeled
- 1 jalapeño pepper (or 2 Serrano peppers)
- salt and pepper to taste
- Put tomatoes, onion (peeled and chopped into chunks), and garlic in blender or food processor.
- Wash jalapeño pepper and cut lengthwise. Use a teaspoon to scoop out the ribs and seeds (be careful, the oil on these is hot; keep fingers away from your eyes). Chop into chunks, and add to blender or food processor, and then wash your hands with soap and water to remove the hot jalapeño oil from your skin.
- Process tomato mixture until it is finely minced, or is the consistency you prefer (I don’t puree it, but mine is usually pretty smooth; but you can keep it somewhat chunky if you prefer).
- Add to small saucepan, salt and pepper to taste, and bring to boil on stovetop. Reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes.
- Cool and serve immediately, or store in airtight container in the refrigerator.
- Fresh Salsa is highly dependent on the quality of tomatoes you find in your market. If you can’t get good fresh tomatoes, use canned. But then it will no longer be Fresh Salsa — although it will still be quite good.
- You can also cook Salsa the same way I cook Picante Sauce. But your salsa will have moved completely away from the Fresh Salsa or Pico de Gallo style, and will instead be a more generic Tomato Salsa. You won’t have the “fresh” taste, but you’ll gain a deeper, richer blending of flavors. In fact it will taste like Picante Sauce, but chunkier. Try it both ways, and see which you prefer (I make it both ways depending on my mood, and the intended use).
- Some people like to add garlic to their Salsa. Although I like the taste of raw garlic, I never add it to Fresh Salsa. But do so if you desire (I add it to cooked versions).
- Likewise, some people add lime juice, vinegar, and/or olive oil to their salsa. I don’t feel the need for this, but you might. Lime juice adds a nice bright flavor to salsa.
- I occasionally see Picante Sauce recipes that add cumin, coriander, or chili powder (I see this more rarely with salsa recipes). I think adding these spices is overkill, but you might not.
- Feel free to play with the ingredients in these recipes. Like chipotle peppers? Great — add some and see if it works (it does). Think your Salsa would be better with a bit of cucumber? Go for it!
- Picante translates as “hot,” but there’s often no difference in spiciness between Salsa and Picante.
- Many people like to add a touch of sugar to both Salsa and Picante. Do so if you think it needs it.
- Both Salsa and Picante Sauce are excellent when served with tortilla or corn chips. But you already knew that.
- Salsa and Picante go way beyond chips, though. In fact, some reports say that salsa has replaced ketchup as America’s favorite condiment. Both sauces have an affinity for a wide variety of foods. Eggs, for example, are great with a dollop of either. Picante Sauce on a hot dog? Doesn’t appeal to me, but it might to you.
Bring on Cinco de Mayo!
OK, Cinco de Mayo is really just a regional Mexican holiday. It is not Mexico’s independence day (which is September 16). It’s also not a big deal in Mexico. But we gringos in the US are always looking for an excuse to party, so we treat the day as if it’s Mexico’s Fourth of July. And why not? It’s a great opportunity to order a Cerveza or a Margarita.
Anticipating this year’s festivities, Kitchen Riffs will devote this week and next to Mexican/Tex-Mex recipes. We’ve got our Salsa and Picante Sauce covered in this post. Later this week, we’ll be doing Tacos. Next week? Taco Salad and Margaritas.
And if you just can’t wait, check out my posts on Velveeta Tex-Mex Dip, Peach Salsa, Frito Pie, or Chili Basics.
You may also be interested in reading about:
Velveeta Tex-Mex Dip
Frito Pie with Chili
Sweet Potato Chili with Black Beans