Jarred Medium Salsa

From Cook's Country | August/September 2013

Overview:

In an ideal world, we’d always make homemade salsa. In the real world, when we’re pressed for time, we rely on the open-the-jar convenience of store-bought. But the sheer number of products and variations is daunting. Which tastes best?

We focused on the red Tex-Mex style, which dominates U.S. sales, and on a medium level of heat. Medium salsa outsells both mild and hot versions two to one, according to commercial salsa makers and among our own readers. Sales figures compiled by Chicago market research firm IRi gave us the seven top selling national jarred products.

We tasted them plain and with tortilla chips. And when all was said and done, just one salsa was left standing. Tasters had reservations, or worse, about the other six. How did that one product get it right?

To begin, while many of the other salsas were marred by “mushy,” “slimy” vegetables, “with no textural contrast,” our top pick included firm, crunchy, evenly diced vegetables. Moreover, where other salsas were out of whack—overdoing the tomatoes or hot peppers or… read more

In an ideal world, we’d always make homemade salsa. In the real world, when we’re pressed for time, we rely on the open-the-jar convenience of store-bought. But the sheer number of products and variations is daunting. Which tastes best?

We focused on the red Tex-Mex style, which dominates U.S. sales, and on a medium level of heat. Medium salsa outsells both mild and hot versions two to one, according to commercial salsa makers and among our own readers. Sales figures compiled by Chicago market research firm IRi gave us the seven top selling national jarred products.

We tasted them plain and with tortilla chips. And when all was said and done, just one salsa was left standing. Tasters had reservations, or worse, about the other six. How did that one product get it right?

To begin, while many of the other salsas were marred by “mushy,” “slimy” vegetables, “with no textural contrast,” our top pick included firm, crunchy, evenly diced vegetables. Moreover, where other salsas were out of whack—overdoing the tomatoes or hot peppers or onions—our favorite got the ratios right.

No question, the heat level mattered, too. Salsas that used bell pepper were too mild. At the other end of the spectrum, we knocked points off one product that was too hot. Is it too much to ask that medium salsa be medium? We preferred medium heat from chile peppers, specifically the jalapeño chiles that our top three products used.

When we scrutinized labels, we discovered that our top three contained more sugar per serving than the bottom four. Not granulated sugar, mind you. Two products used granulated sugar to sweeten the salsa, an addition our tasters considered misguided. The better salsas derived complexity from naturally sweet tomatoes. Products with less natural sugar seemed unbalanced—too hot or too sour (the acid, incidentally, came from vinegar, not lime juice, which is used in many homemade salsas). A few salsas tasted too salty. But beyond that observation, salt levels didn’t illuminate much about our likes and dislikes.

While it pains us to find fault in six of the seven products in our lineup, we prefer to focus on the positive: our winning salsa is balanced, fresh-tasting, and has a nice level of heat. It’s still not homemade, but it’s the next best thing.

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