Types of Salsa

It’s a topping, it’s a condiment, and it’s universally loved. Salsa is one of those foods that’s easy to prepare and magically highlights the flavors of your fresh seasonal produce. Not all salsa has to be spicy, and it can be adjusted for personal tastes. It’s no wonder that salsa is one of the most popular condiments in the US. Since it’s such a crowd-pleaser, we want to introduce you to salsa varieties you can use to shake up your menu.

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What Is Salsa?

Salsa ranchera in white dish on wood background

Salsa is the Spanish word for sauce, so to many Spanish-speaking cultures, salsa could refer to any sauce. Here in the US, we associate the word salsa with a dip made primarily from chopped tomatoes, chiles, and onions. The early Aztecs knew the combo of tomatoes and chiles was a flavorful contrast to the other staples of their diet. A conservative scoop of salsa was probably added to bowls of beans and corn to liven up the dish.

Everyone loves complimentary chips and salsa, but salsa can also be elevated to a higher level. Approach salsa as a balanced, flavorful condiment meant to highlight your other dishes instead of a dip that's consumed in great quantities. Use the classic salsas below as your inspiration.

Different Types of Salsa

This list of salsas will inspire you to start a culinary garden for your restaurant. Fresh salsa usually contains no more than five ingredients and just requires a bit of chopping or blending.

1. Pico de Gallo

Pico de gallo in white ceramic bowl

Pico de gallo is a fresh, uncooked salsa made with finely chopped tomatoes, onions, serrano peppers, cilantro, lime juice, and salt. It’s known for its vibrant colors and fresh taste. Unlike other types of salsa, pico de gallo contains very little liquid, which makes it a great topping for tacos, quesadillas, and other Latin-inspired dishes.

In Mexico, there are many variations on the basic pico recipe. Some regions prepare the salsa with jicama and oranges. You’ll also find versions of pico de gallo made with cucumber, mango, or watermelon. One thing is certain, though; traditional Mexican pico de gallo isn’t considered a dip. It’s eaten as a topping on other dishes or even considered a salad.

  • Pico de Gallo Ingredients - Tomato, onion, serrano peppers, lime juice, cilantro, salt
  • Pico de Gallo Uses - Topping, filling, or salad
  • How to Pronounce Pico de Gallo - Peek-o-day-guy-o
  • Other Names for Pico de Gallo - Salsa bandera, salsa fresca, salsa cruda

2. Salsa Taquera

Red salsa for tacos in a mexican kitchen

Salsa taquera translates to “taco sauce” in Spanish. It’s a popular salsa served in many Mexican taco stands or taquerias. The key ingredient in salsa taquera is the chile de arbol. This thin red chili pepper is hotter than a jalapeno and gives the salsa its signature spicy kick.

To make this type of salsa, the chiles and other ingredients are cooked first. They can be boiled in water, roasted, or sauteed in oil. Once cooked, the ingredients are blended to make a smooth salsa. The arbol chiles are the star of the show in this salsa, but you can lower the heat by using fewer chiles and more tomatoes.

  • Salsa Taquera Ingredients - Tomato, arbol chiles, onion, garlic, salt, lime juice
  • Salsa Taquera Uses - Topping for tacos
  • How to Pronounce Salsa Taquera - Sal-sa tah-keh-ra
  • Other Names for Salsa Taquera - Chile de arbol salsa

3. Salsa Roja

Organic spicy red salsa

In Spanish, salsa roja means “red sauce”. This is a general term that covers any type of blended red salsa made with tomatoes. Salsa roja can be made from raw ingredients, cooked ingredients, or a combination of both. It can be pureed until it’s completely smooth or blended slightly for a chunky consistency.

Salsa vs Enchilada Sauce

Enchilada sauce is sometimes called red sauce, so how is it different from salsa roja? These two sauces might overlap in their ingredients, but the key difference is that enchilada sauce is thin, smooth, and served hot. It’s also considered an important part of dishes like enchiladas, while salsa roja is a cold table sauce that can be added to anything.

  • Salsa Roja Ingredients - Tomato, onion, serrano or jalapeno peppers, garlic, lime juice, cilantro, salt
  • Salsa Roja Uses - Table sauce and condiment
  • How to Pronounce Salsa Taquera - Sal-sa ro-ha
  • Other Names for Salsa Roja - Red sauce, salsa coicida, salsa asada, salsa Mexicana

4. Salsa Verde

Homemade salsa verde with cilantro

Salsa verde is a “green sauce” that’s made with tomatillos instead of tomatoes. The term salsa verde could refer to any green sauce, but in Mexico, green salsa is made with tomatillos. These small green fruits are native to Mexico and are less sweet and more acidic than tomatoes, which creates a type of salsa with a bright, vegetal flavor.

Just like salsa roja, salsa verde can be made from cooked or raw ingredients. Roasting or charring the ingredients first brings out more sweetness in the salsa verde. Raw, uncooked ingredients produce tarter salsas. Because tomatillos have high acidity already, salsa verde doesn’t need lime juice to balance out the flavors. Salsa verde is pureed into a smooth sauce and served cold as a table salsa or condiment.

  • Salsa Verde Ingredients - Tomatillos, onions, serrano or jalapeno peppers, garlic, cilantro
  • Salsa Verde Uses - Table sauce and condiment
  • How to Pronounce Salsa Verde - Sal-sa vair-day
  • Other Names for Salsa Verde - Green salsa, verde salsa, tomatillo salsa

5. Salsa de Aguacate

green avocado salsa dressing in a clear pitcher

Salsa de aguacate is a creamy, green salsa made with tomatillos and avocado. The raw ingredients are pureed to make a smooth topping that’s often served with tacos and grilled meats. This type of salsa balances the refreshing coolness of avocado with the spiciness of serrano peppers.

Avocado Salsa vs Guacamole

Avocado salsa is another name for salsa de aguacate, but don’t get it mixed up with guacamole. The difference between these two green condiments is that avocado salsa contains tomatillos, and guacamole does not. Salsa de aguacate also has a thin, smooth consistency and guacamole is a thick, chunky dip.

  • Salsa de Aguacate Ingredients - Avocados, tomatillos, onion, serrano peppers, garlic, cilantro
  • Salsa de Aguacate Uses - Topping and condiment
  • How to Pronounce Salsa de Aguacate - Sal-sa day ah-gwa-ka-tay
  • Other Names for Salsa de Aguacate - Tomatillo guacamole, guacamole salsa, avocado salsa verde

6. Salsa Criolla

Peruvian salsa criolla

Peruvian salsa criolla has a different look than the other types of salsas on our list because it contains sliced red onions instead of chopped onions. To achieve the perfect salsa criolla, the onions are thinly sliced, then sprinkled with salt, and lightly massaged. This removes any bitterness or bite from the onions and coaxes out their natural sweetness.

Authentic salsa criolla also contains a bright orange chile called aji amarillo which adds a fruity, peppery bite. Orange bell pepper can be substituted for the amarillo pepper, but it produces a mild-tasting salsa. This red onion relish is a popular condiment in Peru, but it’s also enjoyed throughout Central and South America. Use it as a topping on meats and sandwiches.

  • Salsa Criolla Ingredients - Red onion, aji amarillo peppers, cilantro, lime juice, salt
  • Salsa Criolla Uses - Relish, topping, condiment, salad
  • How to Pronounce Salsa Criolla - Sal-sa kree-o-luh
  • Other Names for Salsa Criolla - Peruvian red onion relish, Peruvian pickled onions, red onion salsa

Salsa FAQs

We answer some common salsa questions below:

Is Salsa a Sauce?

Yes, salsa is the Spanish word for sauce. The salsa made from chopped tomatoes, peppers, and onions is more of a topping or condiment, but it can be blended into a smooth sauce-like consistency depending on your preference. Salsa taquera is often served in sauce bottles so customers can add the desired amount to their tacos.

What Is Cantina Style Salsa vs Regular Salsa?

Cantina style is a term used to describe salsa that is restaurant quality. Jarred cantina-style salsa has a thin consistency, and regular salsa in the jar is usually chunky.

What's the Difference between Taco Sauce and Salsa?

Taco sauce is a smooth, tomato-based sauce with a concentrated flavor that comes from garlic powder, cumin, chili powder, and sometimes even sugar. Salsa can be smooth or chunky, but it gets most of its flavor from fresh produce and herbs like cilantro.

What Is a Molcajete?

A molcajete bowl is a Mexican tool used to mash ingredients for dishes like salsa or guacamole. Just like a mortar and pestle, the molcajete consists of a large bowl and a grinder tool called the tejolote. The original molcajete bowls were made from volcanic stone, but it's common to find them made in materials like granite or marble. There are also lightweight, plastic molcajete bowls that can be used for serving salsa in restaurants.

History of Salsa Food

You can’t talk about authentic Mexican salsas without first honoring their history. The origin of salsa made from chopped tomatoes goes back to a time when Central America was home to the Aztecs, Incas, and Mayans. It was likely all these cultures ate salsa in some form, but the Aztec diet was documented in more detail, so they are often credited with inventing it.

A Franciscan missionary working in Central America recorded information about Aztec foods, including a sauce made from tomatoes, chiles, and squash seeds. This combination of ingredients didn’t go by one specific name until a Spanish priest dubbed it “salsa” in the 1500s. The Aztec tradition was passed down to subsequent cultures living in Central America and Mexico. Like many traditional Hispanic foods, salsa has come to be loved throughout all of North America.

Now that you know more about the types of authentic salsa, you can skip the jarred stuff and prepare your own. Salsa is easy to make and adds a burst of flavor to your other menu items.

Posted in: Kitchen & Cooking Tips|By Michale LeRoy
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