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How to make salsa without a recipe

Updated on June 6, 2013
Salsa by A Rosie Sweet Home on Flickr
Salsa by A Rosie Sweet Home on Flickr

Some people like to cook in a helter-skelter way, throwing pinches of salt over this and that to create a wholly unique--but hardly repeatable--dish. Others cling to recipes like a drowning man to the remains of a capsized ship, with no room for failure but no openness to creative mistakes.

Salsa is open to interpretation. Beyond its basic function of being a tomato-based sauce with a Mexican kick, there are a wide variety of ways to flavor salsa. Some salsas are sweet, fruity-based dips like mango or berry salsa. These salsas play off the sweetness of the tomatoes. Other salsas are fiery, more vehicles to heat than anything else.

If you have a lot of tomatoes at your disposal--or you just want to make a salsa all your own--a few guidelines can help you whip up a salsa that’s customizable with any flavors you might like.

Focus on the tomatoes first

Tomatoes are the backbone of a good salsa. In the summer, when tomatoes are at their peak, you’ll end up with a smooth, sweet salsa as the chopped tomatoes mix with seasonings. The type of tomato doesn’t matter, so long as it’s ripe and juicy. I’ve used sweet grape tomatoes blended up for sweetness, and vine-ripened tomatoes always give the salsa a pleasant flavor that’s not too sweet.

You’ll always need more tomatoes than you think you’ll need. Start with five or six tomatoes for a small batch, and work up from there. If you mess up the seasonings, you’ll just add more tomato, so it’s good to have extra tomatoes on hand.

Chop the tomatoes either roughly or finely depending on whether you like your salsa chunky or smooth. For extra smoothness, you can run the ripe tomatoes through a food processor. They’ll break down almost immediately, and you’ll be left with Mexican restaurant-style salsa, a smooth, liquidy salsa full of flavor.

My personal method is to run half of my tomatoes through the food processor and add half of my tomatoes roughly chopped. This gives the salsa a mid-range consistency that both settles well on chips but isn’t too thick and heavy.

Tomato salsa by Chris Breeze on Flickr
Tomato salsa by Chris Breeze on Flickr

Add basic spices

The basic spices of a salsa are as follows: fresh garlic or garlic powder, onion powder, cumin, salt, and pepper. I like to squeeze in fresh lime juice as well for a citric kick.

How much should you add? This is where the free-form salsa-making comes in. There is no set guideline for how much to put in, as it’s all a matter of taste. Cumin adds a flavor not unlike that from a taco seasoning mix, so a little goes a long way. Pepper never hurts the salsa, so feel free to go bold there. Fresh garlic beats garlic powder, so chop and add several cloves and let it work its magic overnight.

Salt is the magic ingredient. Salsa is very salty, and if you don’t put enough in, the salsa will taste flat and plain, and the tomatoes will seem too sweet. Keep adding salt until you hit a sweet spot where you think you might have gone just a bit too far. If you stir the salt in well and let it sit, the flavors generally mellow. If you add too much salt, chuck in some more tomatoes and rework your other seasonings.

Salsa varietals by sporkist on Flickr
Salsa varietals by sporkist on Flickr

What else to add to a basic salsa

As I mentioned, even though salsas can vary quite a bit, they all tend to have a sabor mexicano all their own. For that reason, there are a few ingredients that can really add an authentic flavor to your salsa--not to mention it tastes great!

Peppers add both flavor and heat. For starters, bell peppers add a crunchy sweetness that pairs well with the tomatoes. If you only add peppers, the salsa might be too sweet, so be extravagant with the salt. Other great peppers include jalapeño, which will add sweet heat, and ancho, which isn’t so strong as the jalapeño. Chileheads may opt for spicier peppers.

Onion is great, although a good salsa can be made without it. Green onion is mild but still imparts a good flavor, so it works well in salsas. If you can get a hold of sweet onions, they work really well with the tomatoes because the tang of the onion mellows out the sweetness. Onion powder works in a pinch, but some actual onion can really add a robustness to the salsa.

Other flavors that work well for an authentic Mexican-style salsa are cilantro, tomatillo, and canned chipotle chile.

LearnToCook shares how to make fresh salsa

Mango by nick@ on Flickr
Mango by nick@ on Flickr

Funky salsas, assemble

This is free-form salsa, so feel free to experiment. As long as salsa has the tomato base and plenty of salt, other ingredients simply add a uniqueness to your salsa that makes it shine as a condiment. A well-made salsa will get you plenty of compliments at a fiesta, and it’s fun to come up with ideas for bold new flavors.

Here are suggestions for things to add to your salsa:

  • Cucumber
  • Mango
  • Celery
  • Tart apple
  • Pomegranate
  • Watermelon

Go wild with new vegetables or sweet, tart fruits, or maybe try to add new spices. You can add other things to the mix as well. One souvenir I brought back from the Chesapeake Bay was crab salsa!

Remember that if you "mess up," it's no reason to panic. With salsa, you can always start off by diluting your mix with more tomatoes. Just take things slow and taste as you go along.

Salsa tasting by uberculture on Flickr
Salsa tasting by uberculture on Flickr

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