4 Salsa Styles and How To Make Them

Consider this Salsa 101.

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Green salsa on a table surrounded by chips

Name a condiment better than salsa. We'll wait. Literally translating to "sauce" from Spanish, salsa is the source of top level flavor in so many Mexican dishes, and is essential to cooking across Central and South America. Typically made from tomatoes, alliums, and fresh herbs (like cilantro), salsa can vary widely in textures, tastes, and styles, which are interpreted and adapted regionally, oftentimes to pair well with the local cuisine. And though excellent jarred salsa isn't hard to come by—it's a weeknight staple in so many recipes—knowing how to make your own salsa is a delicious game changer.

"There are many ways of preparing salsas. Mexico is well known for its abundance of chillies and they don't always have to be spicy, Some of them will give a good amount of heat while others will give lots of flavor." says Billy Maldonado, Executive Chef at Fónico in Mexico City. "Playing and combining these two will give any recipe endless possibilities of flavor. I have found a profound love in researching and combining different types of chillies. Roasting, grilling, boiling, steaming, even fermenting chillies will provide a unique salsa."

Whether drizzled across tacos, piled high on a grilled fish, used as a dip for tortilla chips, or slathered on a tostada, these are some of the most common salsas you'll want a grasp on to start becoming a salsa aficionado.

What Is Salsa Macha?

Native to Veracruz and Oaxaca, this salsa is now popular in many regions of Mexico. Similar to Chinese chili crisps, salsa macha combines infused oil with crispy, crunchy elements for levels of spiciness ranging from a slight tongue tickle to a major kick. "Salsa macha is made mostly of dried chiles with nuts and seeds," says Asia Shabazz, Chef de Cuisine of New York's Bar Tulix, a contemporary Mexican restaurant." Salsa macha is typically enjoyed with meat, according to Shabazz, though it can be drizzled on any protein, starch, or veggies, like fried eggs, avocado, and cheese.

At Fónico, dried shrimps and tamarind paste give the house-made salsa macha seafood-like taste and "a touch of sweetness that comes from the tamarind," says Maldonado. "Any dried chilis will do for this preparation. I recommend mixing spicy chilis such as arbol, puya, chipotles, piquin chilis, and chiltepin with not-so-spicy ones but packed full of flavor, such as ancho chilies, pasilla, or guajillo. Any nuts will also do perfectly fine. Use the ones that you like the most. I personally love peanuts and sesame seeds. As for spices, a touch of star anise will elevate the preparation to a whole new level. Lemon juice or cider vinegar will give the acidity. A mixture of olive oil and canola oil is a good option."

Salsa macha recipes vary by region and chef, but the technique is what's most essential. Start with a neutral oil, like grapeseed, and heat it in a skillet. "For salsa macha, I recommend making sure your oil is at a good temperature," Shabazz notes. Then, you'll want to add dried chiles, like ancho and chiles de arbol, seeds removed. Add some chopped garlic, a crunchy element like peanuts or sunflower seeds, and top with sesame seeds. Once all is fragrant, let it cool and blend everything together. You'll get a tasty, infused paste that can be used to accentuate pretty much any dish. Store in a sealed jar in the fridge for up to a month.

Though it's not quite salsa macha, take the essence of this recipe and make it herbaceous with Real Simple's fried herb salsa recipe.

What Is Salsa Verde?

"Salsa verde is a green salsa typically made from tomatillos, jalapeños, or serranos, onions, garlic, and lime juice," Shabazz explains. "This salsa can be made with raw or cooked ingredients, depending on the flavors you're looking for. It is incredibly versatile and adds so much fun to a dish." Commonly drizzled over fish, tacos, meats, or even eaten as a dip, there are endless ways you can make and enjoy salsa verde.

Whether you're going the raw, boiled, charred, or roasted route, Shabazz recommends "getting the freshest produce you can to get the most radiant salsa." You can also mix and match raw and cooked ingredients—use roasted tomatillos for depth of flavor, but keep peppers and onions raw for their brightness. To make salsa verde, start with about a pound of fresh tomatillos, husked and washed (to remove any stickiness). Quarter the tomatillos and an onion. Dice several green chiles and garlic. Throw them all into a blender with a handful of cilantro. Or cook the ingredients first, either under a broiler on a roasting pan or on the stove top, adding fresh cilantro just before blending. Season with salt. You can also cook the salsa verde for a few minutes on the stove after blending the raw ingredients to add more depth and flavor.

Avocado salsa verde, also called salsa de aguacate, is a variation on salsa verde using raw avocados for creaminess and sweetness. Add it to your favorite salsa verde recipe, plus a splash of water to loosen up the salsa. Spritz in the juice of half a lime to keep the bright green color and add a bit of acidic zest.

Try Real Simple's fresh tomatillo salsa recipe for a quick take on salsa verde or go for more smokiness with our blistered tomatillo salsa recipe.

What Is Salsa Roja?

"Salsa roja is a red salsa," Shabazz says. "Salsa roja typically contains tomato, chiles, onion, and garlic. It can be made with either cooked or raw ingredients." Perhaps the most common style of salsa in the United States (see: your supermarket's chips and dip section), salsa roja varies widely in spiciness, texture, and ingredients. Classically, salsa roja is paired with tacos, meat, fish, or on its own as a dip, Shabazz says. Salsa roja is a salsa to really riff on, but for the perfect blend, Shabazz suggests "finding the right balance between tomatoes and chiles."

For a quick salsa roja, combine a 28-ounce can of diced tomatoes, one jalapeño pepper (de-seeded if you want a less spicy salsa), a handful of cilantro, plus some peeled garlic, diced onion, and a pinch of salt in a blender or food processor. Blend with fresh cilantro until smooth, about 30 seconds. Let rest in the fridge for at least half an hour so flavors can seep together, and serve as a dressing or dip. Again, the blended salsa can be cooked, or another style of tomatoes, such as fresh tomatoes or broiled and charred tomatoes, can be used to switch up the flavor.

What Is Pico de Gallo?

Literally translating to "rooster's beak" in English, pico de gallo is a style of salsa that originated in Aztec cuisine, believed to be eaten with pinched fingers that resembled its namesake. Now, it's a raw salsa seen across Mexico and commonly used in Americanized Mexican cuisine, such as stuffed in Cali-Mex burritos and strewn across plates of Tex-Mex nachos. Also referred to as "pico" and sometimes just "fresh salsa", pico de gallo is a staple across Latin America.

"Pico de gallo is a fresh salsa typically containing tomato, onion, serrano, and cilantro," Shabazz says. "What sets pico de gallo apart from other styles of salsa is that all of the ingredients are chopped, instead of blended or mashed." Typically, pico de gallo is enjoyed as a topping. "It adds freshness and extra texture," Shabazz adds. Like most salsas, pico de gallo can also make for a nice dip.

"For this dish, you'll want to have a nice sharp knife and try to get the best tomatoes you can find," Shabazz recommends.

Try Real Simple's pico de gallo recipe, which mixes freshly chopped plum tomatoes, red onion, cilantro, lime juice, and jalapeño for the perfect salsa. For another riff, try our easy fresh mild salsa recipe, which takes just minutes to prepare and lasts for days.

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