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Pico de Gallo: The Secret to Perfect Salsa

Updated on July 6, 2020
ChristyMarieKent profile image

Christy learned the art and science of cooking from her Southern kin. Her cooking secrets aren't secrets because she shares them freely.

Photo by John Sullivan
Photo by John Sullivan | Source

How To Make Fresh Tomato Salsa (and Trick Your Family into Eating Healthy Food)

Fresh tomato salsa ... Pico de Gallo ... Salsa Fresca ... Call it whatever you want: It's uncooked, undiluted, unadulterated veggies on a chip.

The first time I ever had it, my college roommate chopped up tomatoes, onions, cilantro, limes, and jalapeños and called it salsa. She was from California. I was from Kentucky, where "salsa" was barely more than flavored tomato juice. I looked at hers and said, "That's not salsa."

The next time I had fresh sales was on my honeymoon in Cancun, where every restaurant gave us a bowl of mouth-watering pico de gallo with our chips. I asked for hot, because it's never too hot for me. Except at the local restaurant near the Mayan ruins, where the locals ate. We were the only Americans. We pointed out our choices on the menu and attempted to pronounce them the way we would in the United States.

The waiter, who spoke no English, laughed at our terrible Spanish. I fumbled with the word for hot.

"Ah, caliente," he said, and he brought us the most fiery, scorching, blistering bowl of pico de gallo ever cooked up by the demons of hell.

I ate it anyway, and I got hooked.

When I went back home, I had to go back to the jars of store-bought stuff. No pico de gallo--only the flavored tomato juice that they call salsa.

So I did what anybody else would have. I bought some fresh vegetables and I started chopping. I experimented until I got it just right. Perfect!

(That was three years before the Internet. If only I had waited, I could have looked it up and saved myself all the trouble. Stupid Internet.)

Since I've already figured out the secrets to perfect pico de gallo, I'll graciously share them with you. Because I'm nice and stuff.

Read on for directions and a few fun and interesting salsa facts for your amusement and edification.


Christy Marie Kent

Writer | Storyteller | Speaker

When I was a toddler, my dad tried to break my thumb-sucking by putting hot sauce on my thumb. It worked out just fine. I licked it off, and held my thumb out for more.

Is There a Difference between Salsa, Pico de Gallo, and Salsa Fresca?

(To-MAY-to, to-MAH-to?)

Yes. Everyone agrees that there is a difference.

Unfortunately, no one agrees on exactly what the difference is.

Salsa is the Spanish word for sauce, which means that you're always right in calling a sauce a salsa, even if it's pico de gallo. However, most Americans think of salsa as the cooked sauce that you dip chips in.

Pico de gallo is what most Americans call the fresh chopped condiment with tomatoes, onions, and peppers. It's not cooked. It's fresh, which is why some people call it salsa fresca, or "fresh salsa."

Other people define salsa fresca as a dish made of chopped tropical fruits.

In this article, we're talking about pico de gallo, the chopped-tomato-and-onion dish, which we'll also call salsa or salsa fresca.

So ... What's It Gonna Be? Fresh or Cooked?

See results

Get Your Utenils

You'll need:

  • A medium knife for chopping.
  • A cutting board.
  • One large bowl.

Here's a secret: use a glass or ceramic bowl. A metal bowl can react with the acids and make the pico de gallo taste metallic.

Get Your Ingredients

You'll need:

  • About 5 Roma (plum) tomatoes. These are better suited than the larger tomatoes, although other types will work if that's all you have available.
  • Half of a large white onion. If it's is on the small side, use a whole onion.
  • Half a batch of cilantro.
  • Two jalapeño peppers. Feel free to adjust this according to your taste. For extra hot, try habaneros.
  • One fresh lime. Substitute bottled lime or lemon juice if you don't have a lime.
  • 1/2 Teaspoon salt.
  • Pinch of black pepper.
  • Pinch of cumin.

And Chop It All Up

Dice the tomatoes and onions in pieces about as big as your fingernail. Drop them in the bowl.

Chop the cilantro. It's better to pull off the larger stems, but don't worry about trying to keep out the smaller stems. Throw it in the bowl.

Chop the jalapeños into finer pieces, so that they spread through the mixture. Toss them in the bowl.

Cut the lime in half. Poke the flesh with your knife and then squeeze the juice into the bowl. Although not required, the lime juice keeps the vegetables fresher and can reduce the risk of e coli.

Add salt, pepper, and cumin to taste.

Mix it thoroughly.

Give it a preliminary taste test. Be aware, however, that the true taste won't come out until the flavors have blended for an hour or two.

Cover the bowl and place it in the refrigerator.

Diced tomatoes
Diced tomatoes | Source

I always make a double batch, complete with everything except the peppers. Then I split it into two bowls and add jalapeños and habaneros to one. That bowl is mine. My wimpy family gets the bowl with no peppers.

Its True Colors, Shining Through

Here's the secret to perfect pico de gallo: Balance the colors.

Pico de gallo has the colors of the Mexican flag: red (tomatoes), white (onion), and green (cilantro and jalapeños). If your pico de gallo is too red (too many tomatoes), it will be bland. If it's too green (too much cilantro or too many jalapenos), it will be too hot or too ... well, cilantroey.

I like twice as much red as white, and enough green to make a nice accent color. And maybe orange highlights from habaneros.

It takes a little practice to get it just the way you like it; but once you figure it out, then you'll have your own perfect salsa recipe.

Three Mexican flags in a stiff breeze. Photo by Michael L. Dorn.
Three Mexican flags in a stiff breeze. Photo by Michael L. Dorn. | Source

Today's Featured Use of Pico de Gallo

Fish tacos with fresh garden salsa

Love tacos, but want a healthier alternative? Try this quick and super-easy meal.

Fry fish your favorite way. I prefer tilapia or swai, pan-fried in just a tablespoon of olive oil, no breading required. For extra taste, sprinkle either Old Bay or Emeril’s. (If you choose the latter, Internet rules require you to shout "Bam!")

Crumble the cooked fish, slip it into soft taco shells, and slather it with your homemade pico de gallo. Enjoy!

Fish tacos with pico de gallo
Fish tacos with pico de gallo | Source

Or try these slightly more complex recipes:

The One Trick That Will Save You Time and Effort

You can chop all those vegetables by hand. It might take you a while, especially if you're making a double or triple batch.

To make your job easier, however, try using a good food processor. My Cuisinart makes the job so fast that I can spend less time with my tomatoes and more time with my family.

The Best Place To Get Fresh Vegetables -- Check Out Your Local Farmers' Market

Human vegetables  at the Prior Lake Farmers' Market
Human vegetables at the Prior Lake Farmers' Market

At the farmers' market, of course. If you want only organic local food, you can find a vendor that does that. Get to know your farmer.

On the other hand, in many places it's hard to find all the ingredients in season at the same time. While some farmers' markets allow only local produce, others have a mixture of local and imported. In the Twin Cities, for example, the St. Paul Farmers' Market allows only food grown within 50 miles, while the Minneapolis Farmers' Market, the largest open-air market in the Upper Midwest, allows just about anything--as long as the vendor discloses whether his or her produce is local.

Shoppers at the Prior Lake Farmers' Market
Shoppers at the Prior Lake Farmers' Market

"Nope. That One's Not Hot."

--My father, pastor of a country Baptist church, whenever a local farmer brought him a paper bag of peppers and made him eat one, whole, raw, in front of the congregation.

(He later confessed to me some of the peppers almost made him cry. But he'd never admit it to the farmers.)

What the Rest of the Internet Says

There's more to pico de gallo than I can show here, right? Here are a few of my favorite links to other recipes, info sites, or other interesting stuff.


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