Standing in the salsa aisle at the grocery store can make your head hurt. Classic tomato? Or go rogue with corn or peach? Big jar? Small jar? Mild, medium or hot? How hot is hot?
Homemade salsa can be a great way to make a satisfying dip that is exactly to your liking. You can put together a ton for a party to serve with tortilla chips or a little to top your fish or chicken dinner.
For simplicity’s sake, I’m focusing on uncooked salsas (you might find tomato-based versions referred to as pico de gallo). Here are some tips to get you started.
▪ “You don’t have to stick to a recipe.” So advises Anna Bran-Leis, owner of the DC Empanadas stand and food truck, and the restaurant Taqueria del Barrio. “You can make salsa out of pretty much anything,” she says. Just follow your personal preferences, although you’ll want to take into consideration some of her other advice.
▪ Be sure your main ingredient is good. Lackluster tomatoes are a grocery store scourge. In winter or other lean tomato times, Bran-Leis suggests using grape or cherry tomatoes. Fruit salsa can be great, too. Unless you’re trying for tart and crunchy, see that whatever you’re using – pineapple, mango, peaches – is ripe. Ditto the avocados.
▪ Think about texture. Bran-Leis prefers to have ingredients chopped the same size. That way each bite is consistent. There’s at least one exception – especially when it comes to spicier varieties, hot peppers can be more finely minced. Don’t make everything mushy. Bran-Leis likes to add jicama for a crisp option. Bell peppers are another go-to.
▪ Balance your flavors. Bran-Leis says this might be the hardest part of making salsa. Her ideal: “I want a salsa to be a little bit sweet, a little bit spicy and a little bit tangy.”
Sweet can come from fruit, of course. Or even ripe tomatoes, especially the smaller orange or yellow varieties. Spicy: Fresh chile peppers are a no-brainer. Bran-Leis is a fan of serrano, whose heat is between a jalapeño and habanero. You can use dried peppers, such as ancho, which can impart a smoky flavor, too. Rehydrate and chop, or use as a puree or paste. For tangy and tart, turn to citrus juice. Lemon and lime are obvious choices. Just don’t forget about orange or grapefruit, which can impart sweetness as well. A splash of vinegar is another possibility.
▪ Bring some heat and smoky flavors with chili powder, cumin or ground chipotle powder. Red pepper flakes or Aleppo pepper share their color and kick. Other spices to consider: garlic powder, turmeric (for color and earthy flavor), ginger and garam masala.