Posted September 9, 2005 by Nick Lindauer in Hot Sauce News

Salsa tasters put their tongues to the test

Consumer Reports: Salsa tasters put their tongues to the test

Fresh is best, but some jarred products pass muster
Published in the Asbury Park Press 09/4/05

WHAT’S THE KING of condiments? If you guessed ketchup, mustard or barbecue sauce, you’re in for a spicy surprise.

Salsa, as it happens, outsells all three. Tomato salsa’s basic ingredients — tomatoes, peppers and onions — make it versatile enough to use in soups, stews, sauces and marinades, though most people use it as a dip for tortilla chips. So popular is the stuff that manufacturers and entrepreneurs introduce an average of more than 100 new salsas a year.

With all that product crowding the marketplace, it can be hard for a salsa lover to keep up. So our testers did the work for you, culling from an initial sample of 50 brands just 11 that merited an in-depth look. Trained tasters sampled each finalist for flavor and texture, and assigned a heat score that ranged from very mild (think A-1 Steak Sauce) to Tabasco-like fiery. The tasting complete, one product emerged as “excellent,” while several others scored “very good” overall.

In Mexico, salsa can be anything from a simple pico de gallo, consisting of fresh chopped vegetables and herbs, to a complex mole, made of spices cooked with fruit, chocolate, or tomatoes.

In the United States, most salsas are based on tomatoes. That said, they can be thin or thick, sweet or tangy, chunky or smooth, made with fresh vegetables or roasted. In some we tested, tomatoes, onions and jalapeno peppers predominated. Others were spiked with olives, lime juice, cumin, corn or carrots. Less-common ingredients may include mango, cheese and plantains.

Commercial salsas don’t usually match freshly made. At its best, jarred salsa — which has been cooked — is like a good spaghetti sauce, in which flavors meld. At its worst, it can taste like tomato paste. Refrigerated salsa is more like a raw-tomato salad: Ingredients are chopped fresh and put into plastic tubs. However, the one refrigerated product we tested — Santa Barbara, which costs about 82 cents per half-cup; check www.sbsalsa.com for sales information — was sour, watery and overpowered by oregano.

The best jarred salsas we tested had fresh, balanced flavors with no hint of overprocessing, which can make it hard to tell the ingredients apart. The best of the best — the excellent Zapata Fire Roasted Salsa Roja, available for about 92 cents per half-cup in many states; check online at www.treeoflife.com — tasted of roasted onion, garlic and smoky chile pepper. This thin, medium-heat salsa was the only cooked product to have much of the flavor and character of salsas made from scratch.

Another thin salsa notable for its roasted, smoky chile pepper flavor, Jardine’s 7 J Ranch Campfire Roasted ($1.12 per half-cup, order by calling 800-544-1880) was very good overall, but hotter than the similarly labeled Zapata. (Most of the salsas we tested were labeled “medium” for heat level. Their actual heat scores were based on judgments from our tasters.)

Among chunky salsas, we liked the medium-heat Desert Pepper Trading Co.’s 2 Olive Roasted Garlic ($1.37 per half-cup; www.desertpepper.com), the mild, cumin-flavored Green Mountain Gringo ($1.09; www.greenmountaingringo.com), and the hot, carrot-enhanced Guiltless Gourmet’s Southwestern Grill (93 cents; www.guiltlessgourmet.com) for their unusual ingredients. For a chunky salsa with just tomato, onion and chile peppers, consider Joe T. Garcia’s Salsa Picante. Among the fieriest salsas we tested, it costs about 88 cents per half-cup. (Check www.joets.com for sales information.)

Salsa’s big sellers — Tostitos, Pace and Chi-Chi’s — were only so-so in our tests. Rated lowest of all 11 products, Chi-Chi’s Fiesta Thick & Chunky (about 79 cents per half-cup) had a funky soapy-citrus quality to go with its “very mild” heat score. Although better tasting, Tostitos 100 percent Natural (84 cents) and Pace Chunky (76 cents) were higher than Chi-Chi’s — and most other tested salsas –in sodium content.

Nick Lindauer

The Original Hot Sauce Blog