The Definitive Guide To Mexican Salsas (With A Heat Scale)

If you’ve ever secretly wondered what the difference between all those salsas on the restaurant table is — here’s your guide.
April 18, 2019
The Definitive Guide To Mexican Salsas (With A Heat Scale)

What you might not know about Mexican salsas is that every region has different recipes — and none are the same as another. Of course, each cook also puts their own spin on the classics. Some grill the ingredients, others fry them, grind them raw, crush them with a mortar and pestle, and so on. The variations are endless.

More importantly, great salsa is the secret to every delicious Mexican dishAlthough there are hundreds of recipes, this is a guide to the most common types of salsa you’ll come across and how spicy they are (with a handy heat scale). That way, you won’t come across as a clueless foreigner during your next trip to Mexico (or just to the family-owned Mexican restaurant in your town). ¡Vamos!

Pico de gallo

Made with tomato, onion, cilantro and jalapeño or serrano peppers finely chopped and spritzed with lemon. The most commonly known internationally, but the least used on the table in Mexico.

Heat scale: 🌶

Salsa verde (green salsa)

My favorite — and the one that’s always on the table. Jalapeño and serrano peppers, green tomatoes, garlic, onion and cilantro. It can also be prepared in two different forms: grilled or raw. The grilled version is a thin liquid with a smoky flavor, while the raw version is thick. In either case, you can see seeds from the peppers. Ideal for any dish, but especially for tacos since they add a touch of acidity. But be careful! This type shouldn’t be confused with guacamole-style salsa verde, which is also green.

Heat scale: depends, but generally 🌶🌶🌶

Guacamole-style salsa verde

This type of Mexican salsa has the same ingredients as traditional salsa verde, but it’s boiled before being liquefied and vegetable oil is added to give it a creamy texture. Oh, and it doesn’t have anything to do with avocados or guacamole.

Heat scale: 🌶🌶

Salsa roja (red salsa)

This is another salsa that’s always on the table. It’s made with red tomatoes, onion, garlic, cilantro and red serrano pepper. It sounds similar to salsa verde, but red serrano peppers are a bit spicier than their green counterparts, so be careful!

Heat scale: 🌶🌶🌶

Salsa de chile de árbol (tree pepper salsa)

The favorite salsa of taco-makers and most Mexicans. Although it’s made with chile de árbol (a very spicy pepper), don’t be too afraid to try it. You can tell it apart from the other Mexican salsas on this list by its orange color. The ingredients are onion, tomato, garlic, chile de árbol and oil.

Heat scale: 🌶🌶🌶🌶

Salsa tamulada

This is easily the Queen of Salsas just because of how spicy it is. Not as common in the center of the country, but still popular overall. To make it, mix different habanero peppers and add orange juice to give it the consistency of salsa. It can be green, red or coffee-colored, depending on the color of the peppers, but you can tell it apart by its thin and transparent consistency.

Heat scale: stomach ulcers, or in chiles: 🌶🌶🌶🌶🌶🌋🔥

How To Tell If A Salsa Is Spicy

Unfortunately for foreigners, there aren’t any fool-proof rules, but a useful guideline is to pay attention to the consistency, smell and ingredients:

  • Ingredients: From least to most spicy, the peppers would be ordered as jalapeño, serrano, chile de árbol and habanero.
  • Consistency: If you can see seeds, it’s probably spicy. Also, thick salsas are usually spicier than thin salsas because they’re not diluted. The exception to this would be salsas with habanero.
  • Smell: If you still have doubts, smell the salsa. If it makes your eyes water or your nose itch, be careful.

Now that you know your way around Mexican salsas don’t be afraid to try out the delicious flavor they add to any dish. Your adventurism will be well-rewarded!

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Author Headshot
Margaret Fink
Proud Mexican and resident of Mexico City, Margaret loves dogs, especially her Golden Retriever, Sam. When she's not eating or sleeping, she's out traveling somewhere. Her favorite destination? All of them! She studied journalism and, among other things, is devoted to writing about her beautiful and beloved Mexico. You can read her blog here.
Proud Mexican and resident of Mexico City, Margaret loves dogs, especially her Golden Retriever, Sam. When she's not eating or sleeping, she's out traveling somewhere. Her favorite destination? All of them! She studied journalism and, among other things, is devoted to writing about her beautiful and beloved Mexico. You can read her blog here.

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