In a perfect world, we would all make our own salsa. There really is just no excuse. It is inexpensive, takes about 30 minutes, and is worlds better than anything you can find prepackaged in a jar. These are simple truths that have been and will always be true. And even if a jar tries to tell you (often without serifs) that it is “artisanal,” do not believe it. Do not be tricked. You can do better, and you deserve better. Because maybe, just maybe, the artisan we all seem to be looking for was ourselves all along.
One of the best things about salsa is that because there are so few components, it is highly adjustable to your liking. And as you make more salsa, you will discover more and more what you like, and at some point, when you have made enough salsa that you know how to make an adjustment that directly results in something you like, well, that is very rewarding. To start, here are a few pointers. Tomatoes add body. Onions add sweetness. Garlic adds savoriness. Jalapeños add spiciness. Tomatillos add tangy-ness. Cilantro adds herbal brightness. Limes add fruity brightness. Salt adds flavor. (And, if you want to get adventurous, you can try adding other ingredients like a chipotle (smokiness) or other peppers like habanero (extra spiciness).)
These are just points of reference to help you begin to find your way to your salsa that you most like. But remember, the most important thing is to just make salsa. When you make it, salsa is as forgiving as it is delicious. And even imperfect salsa is something special, an opportunity to learn how to sense what is missing and make the appropriate adjustment to your liking. This is a journey not to be rushed.
Here is all that you need to make your salsa:
- About 5-8 plum tomatoes (other tomatoes also work, but plum tomatoes are nice because they hold less water)
- 1 onion, halved and root removed (usually white, but any will do)
- 1-2 cloves garlic, peeled
- 1 jalapeño, stem removed
- About 2-3 tomatillos, husks removed (optional)
- Cilantro, about a handful, roughly chopped
- 1 lime
- Salt and ground black pepper
And here is how to make it:
1. Heat a large pan (cast iron is nice, but any pan will do, as will a grill) to medium-high/high heat. It is hot enough when a drop of water sizzles and evaporates immediately.
2. Put your tomatoes, onion, garlic, jalapeño, and tomatillos in the pan. They should sizzle upon contact. (Do not crowd the pan. If you crowd the pan, the vegetables will steam, which is not what you want.)
3. When a vegetable is blackened like some are in the picture below (this will take a few minutes), flip it and blacken it on the other side as well. Blackening on two sides should be enough–the point here is to just get some char flavor into your salsa, and if you want more char, feel free to blacken more sides. Your tomatoes and tomatillos may burst a bit; this is okay.
4. Put all your blackened vegetables in a large bowl. Using an immersion blender, blend until it looks like salsa, something like the before/after pictures shown below. If the color seems too light, don’t worry, it should darken after it’s sat a while.
(When blending with an immersion blender, it’s usually easiest to go after the tomatoes/tomatillos first, as they release a lot of juice that make it easier to blend the more solid onion/garlic/jalapeño. You can use a food processor too if you like, but I find those are such a pain to clean that they discourage me from making salsa in the first place. If you don’t have an immersion blender, Amazon sells a pretty good/cheap entry level one from Cuisinart for $21.99. I have no affiliation with either Amazon or Cuisinart, but I did purchase one three years ago and it’s held up well through many salsas and takes like two minutes to clean.)
5. Once your salsa is cool enough to taste (but still warm) (you can also cool it down faster by sticking it in the fridge for a bit), add salt and pepper, cilantro, and juice from one lime. The salt here is really important to getting it all in balance. If it tastes like it is missing flavor, add some more salt and taste again. Repeat until it tastes tasty. Do not be afraid of salt; in all likelihood, you will need more than you think. (Similarly, if it tastes like it is missing brightness, add some more lime juice and taste again. Repeat until it tastes tasty.)
6. Cover your salsa and chill in the refrigerator until ready to serve. Eat your salsa with chips, in tacos, with fish, with chicken, etc. Save what’s leftover, it will taste even better the next day.