Jarred Medium Salsa
We love this condiment when it’s homemade, but jarred salsa is more convenient. Which one should you bring home?
How We Tested
Chips and salsa are a mainstay at parties and gatherings. Salsa is also a favorite topping for tacos and nachos, a ready-made sauce for quick chilaquiles, and a streamlined source of flavor in recipes such as our Cheesy Southwestern Meatloaf. And while we love homemade salsa, jarred salsa is more convenient. We especially like medium-heat salsa because it provides bold flavor without scorching our palates. The last time we reviewed medium-heat salsas, we could recommend only one product. The textures of the others were mushy or slimy, and their heat levels were either too hot or too mild. This time around, could we find a medium-heat salsa with moderate heat and a texture that was substantial enough to keep it from sliding off our chips?
We identified 10 top-selling, nationally available salsa brands based on sales data from IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm. Many of these brands make multiple versions of medium-heat salsa (such as smooth, chunky, and restaurant-style), so we rounded up all the options from each company, tasted them against each other, and included our favorite from each brand in our final lineup. Ultimately, that lineup consisted of 10 salsas priced from about $2.50 to roughly $6.00 per 15.5- or 16-ounce jar. Twenty-one editors and test cooks sampled the salsas plain and with our favorite tortilla chips and rated them on flavor, texture, and heat level.
The Best Salsas Had Moderate Heat and No Distracting Flavors
The basic ingredients for salsa are tomatoes, onions, and peppers, plus salt and maybe a little garlic, cilantro, and/or vinegar. But the way manufacturers prepared and combined those ingredients resulted in salsas that tasted wildly different. Even though all the salsas we tasted were labeled as medium-heat salsas, we found that their heat levels varied. Our tasters gave higher scores to salsas they perceived as spicier. A few products tasted bland, while others were too sweet or smoky. Ultimately, our flavor preferences were influenced by three things: the type of pepper used to make the salsa, the amount of sodium per serving, and the presence of additional ingredients.
Jalapeños gave us a “good zing” of heat and weren’t off-puttingly spicy. The five best salsas, which were made with jalapeños or a mix of jalapeños and milder pasillas, were the spiciest. Salsas that contained bell peppers and those whose ingredient labels didn't specify the exact types of pepper used tended to be too mild. The lowest-ranked product, which tasters described as “bland” and “flavorless,” was the only salsa in our lineup that didn’t explicitly specify which kind of chile pepper it contained. We couldn’t be sure which type of pepper was used, but it wasn’t contributing the same level of heat as the peppers in our favorite salsas.
We also preferred salsas with moderate amounts of sodium because, in addition to seasoning the salsa, sodium helps bring out the flavors of other ingredients. Sodium levels in our samples ranged from 80 to 270 milligrams per serving. Salsas with too little sodium—between 80 and 190 milligrams per serving—couldn’t counter the natural sweetness of the tomatoes. Tasters described them as “too sweet.” Salsas with upwards of 230 milligrams of sodium per serving were described by tasters as both flavorful and well seasoned. There was one exception: The salsa with the most sodium in our lineup—270 milligrams per serving—was the same product that didn’t specify the kind of pepper it contained. It lacked heat, and tasters described it as “bland” and as having “zero flavor.” The salsas we preferred were both spicy and had fairly high levels of sodium.
Other ingredients prompted mixed reactions. Cumin and garlic were fine as long as they weren't too strong. One salsa made with roasted ingredients tasted very smoky and charred. Some of our tasters thought the smokiness added depth to an otherwise simple set of ingredients, but others found it distracting. We “liked when [we] could taste the tomato” and the heat of the jalapeños without other ingredients dominating.
Thick Is Better Than Thin and Watery
The appearances and consistencies of the salsas varied even more than their flavors. Our tasters liked thick salsas that stayed put on their chips and were disappointed that several “soupy,” “watery” samples were hard to scoop up. They also disliked salsas that were “gummy” or “slimy.” To explore those differences, we strained one jar of each salsa, all of which were 15.5 or 16 ounces, and compared the amount of liquid they shed. One product, which a taster described as “sad, watery tomatoes in liquid,” released a full cup of liquid. The thicker salsas, including our winner, contained just ½ cup of liquid. A look at the ingredient labels helped identify a potential cause of the sliminess our tasters noticed in two samples. Both contained xanthan gum, a stabilizer often used in packaged food. Though a small amount can thicken salsa and keep it from separating, too much can make it gummy.
Most of our samples had big, visible pieces of tomato and vegetables, while others were almost pureed. Our tasters liked both styles—as long as the salsas were thick and the vegetables in them were crunchy. Samples that were “mushy” and resembled “stewed vegetables” got low marks. Those differences in texture may be due to how the salsas were processed. The general method is fairly simple: The vegetables are chopped (or pureed) and mixed together. In order for it to be shelf-stable, the salsa must be heat-treated. One sample set of guidelines from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration suggests heating the salsa to 200 degrees Fahrenheit and holding it at that temperature for at least 2 minutes before transferring it to jars. The manufacturers of the salsas in our lineup wouldn’t share the details of their process with us, but we know from reviewing other tomato products that manufacturers can usually choose between a quick, hot cooking process or a longer, cooler cooking method. That’s likely why the vegetables in some salsas stayed firmer and crisper while others became mushy.
Our Favorite Medium-Heat Salsa: Pace Chunky Salsa
We’re happy to report that medium-heat salsas have improved since we last reviewed them. We really liked five of the 10 products we tasted. Our favorite, Pace Chunky Salsa, “had a lot of zing” from jalapeños, and its big, firm diced vegetables had plenty of crunch. It was also fairly thick, with only about ½ cup of liquid per 16-ounce jar, which made it easy to scoop and ensured that it stayed put on our chips. We can’t wait to dip our tortilla chips into this salsa at our next party.
Taste a final lineup of 10 medium-heat salsas, priced from about $2.50 to roughly $6.00 per jar (about $0.10 to about $0.40 per ounce), determined by a pretasting of 17 products from 10 nationally available brands; all were purchased in Boston-area supermarkets
Sample with our favorite tortilla chips
Strain one jar of each salsa (all jars were 15.5 or 16 ounces) and measure the amount of liquid shed
Samples were randomized and tasted blind to eliminate bias
Sodium content was standardized for a 2-tablespoon serving size