We walk through the cherry blossom lined alley and down the road just a bit more to get to our favorite little spot for Mexican food. At this point our order rarely deviates from the usual. For me, it’s gorditas; thick masa cakes covered with seasoned and braised pork, cilantro, cotija, avocado and lime. Gabe, my husband, prefers Arroz con pollo and the kids stick with quesadillas. Just before our food arrives you will always find us eagerly filling many little plastic cups with an array of salsas. From pico de gallo to salsa negra, we love all of the traditional Mexican salsas.
It’s hard to define exactly what makes salsa a 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 chilies. 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, or in my case: gorditas.
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. But these days, we often enlist the help of a food processor of blender when making salsas. These are especially useful when making the sort of sauce that requires dried chilies to become a smooth puree.
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 and from there, I’d love to hear about some of your favorite salsas!
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.
I just love that name. More important than that, I love the smoky, intense flavor this salsa has. It starts with dried chilies. I love the robust smokiness of guajillos, but you can play around to find your favorite.
When you are 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.
The rehydrated chilies are added 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 sauce” is 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.
Yes, it’s a salsa and quite possibly my favorite. Taqueria-style purees the avocados for a thin, smooth guacamole but 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.
To learn more about traditional Mexican salsas, along with some delicious recipes, be sure to check out the Craftsy cooking class Mexican Street Food: Tacos & Salsas.