Fiery and smoky. Fruity and sweet. Thin and smooth. Red, green, orange and mahogany. The salsas that grace tables in Mexican households are much more complex than the jars of chunky, tomato-based pico de gallo that are commonly picked up in grocery stores, and they add flavor far beyond familiar Tex-Mex appetizers.
Think of salsa as a condiment, not just a dip. “Salsa means sauce,” says Cesar Solis, chef at Iguana’s Mexican Cuisine. Although his restaurant serves customers thick and chunky red salsas with chips, he reserves the traditional salsas, like his mother’s mole poblano, for his cooking.
And while you will find salsa cruda on many Mexican tables, most non-commercial versions are generally given a whir in a blender or mashed with a mortar and pestle. “An authentic salsa is blended; it’s going to be smooth,” says Carlos Lopez, co-owner with Rick Hempe of Mami’s Tamales.
Salsas aren’t always raw, either. Some are heated and cooked to develop flavor. Carrie Houk, owner of La Cocinera cooking school, discovered the breadth and depth of Mexican cuisine through classes and one-on-one teaching in Mexico. “After you blend a salsa, you can fry it in oil to make the flavors stronger,” she says. “Some salsas are thick, like a paste, and you can thin out a salsa with broth to make a dipping sauce. But cooking with the salsas, using them as sauce – that’s what you want to learn.”
The recipes here are authentic salsas to be spooned over meats and fish or drizzled on rice and beans. Of course, you can enjoy all these salsas with some warm, salty tortilla chips as well. No matter how you utilize these sauces, once you try a true Mexican salsa, you’ll probably ditch the store-bought variety for good.