In the Spanish-speaking world, salsa is simply an all-purpose word that means “sauce,” a category that covers pretty much any sort of liquid accompaniment to food. To us Anglophones, however, salsa refers to the chile-based condiments commonly found in Mexican, Tex-Mex, and Southwestern cuisines. That’s not to say that, for example, Argentine chimichurri or Spanish brava sauce are not worthy of the title “salsa.” Because they definitely are in their homelands. It’s just that from our own skewed, north-of-the-border perspective, the status of seemingly every food rests on whether or not you can put it in a taco.
Even if you try to place geographic limits on the definition of salsa, however, you’ll still find that it encompasses an infinite gastronomy. Because there is no one salsa. Rather, it’s something that varies from maker to maker, from location to location. It shifts depending on the ingredients that are locally available, or even according to the seasons.
That’s not to say that there aren’t a few salsas that have an especially prominent place on the culinary map. These eleven recipes are something of a tour through salsa’s greatest hits that stretches from the Yucatan all the way to the California coast.
1. Roasted Tomato Salsa
A far cry from the corn syrup-sweetened “red sauce” you’ll find in a jar, this basic salsa roja is all about capturing the concentrated flavor of roasted tomatoes and offsetting it with just enough heat to provide a subtle emphasis. Get our Roasted Tomato Salsa recipe.
2. Tomatillo Salsa
Tart and tangy salsa verde is a great all-around workhorse salsa. It’s as at home on chilaquiles as it is on grilled meats, seafood, and more. Get our Tomatillo Salsa recipe.
3. Tomatillo Guacamole Salsa
Creamy like guacamole, yet smooth saucy, and tangy like salsa verde, a squiggle of this guacamole taquero is the ideal topper virtually any taco. Get our Tomatillo Guacamole Salsa recipe.
4. Mezcal Salsa Borracha
Hailing from the area around Mexico City, salsa borracha (“drunken salsa”) gets its name from its most distinctive ingredient: beer (or in some cases, the agave spirit pulque). Typically based around fruity dried chiles like ancho or pasilla, it also pairs well with the smoky overtones of mezcal, our own choice for boozing and saucing it up. Get our Mezcal Salsa Borracha recipe.
5. Yucatán-Style Habanero Salsa
Super-spicy habaneros are mostly frequently used in the cuisine of Yucatan, located in the southeastern Mexican peninsula. Use it (sparingly, of course) with dishes like Cochinita Pibil (citrus-marinated pork). Get the recipe here.
6. Oaxacan Chile Pasilla Salsa
Intense, raisiny pasilla chiles don’t need much else to make a salsa that’s full of flavor, yet mild in the heat department—just a few cloves of garlic for savory emphasis are enough. Serve it with tamales, or on plain rice or tortillas. Get the recipe here.
7. Chile Arbol Salsa
When a standard red sauce just doesn’t cut it, heat seekers reach for the arbol chile salsa, which has a direct, searing heat. Use it with discretion on eggs, meats, tacos, and more. Get the recipe here.
8. Hatch Chile Salsa Verde
The Hatch chile is pretty much the pride of New Mexico, so much that the state has its own “New Mexico Certified Chile” program. Fresh green hatches are used to make a salsa verde, which can be plopped not only on Southwestern standards like enchiladas and burritos, but also on fast food fare like burger and fries. Get the recipe here.
9. Cranberry Salsa
Come Thanksgiving, cranberry salsa is an integral part of the Tex-Mex spread. Instead of going straight for the sweet, this relish takes a detour through the feisty flavors of jalapeño, cilantro, and more. Get the recipe here.
10. Pico de Gallo
Pico de gallo-type condiments are really in a class of their own. Rather than opting for the smooth, liquid-y texture or cooked flavors prominent in so many salsas, they consist mainly of chopped and chunky fresh ingredients. Although this combo of tomato, onion, serrano, and cilantro is called by it’s “rooster’s beak” name in the U.S. and northern Mexico, it’s known as salsa Mexicana further south. It can be found on top of everything from nachos to meats, and more. Get our Pico de Gallo recipe.
11. Jicama-Mango Salsa
There are also a number of pico-style salsas made with fruits. Tiptoeing the line between savory and sweet, this jicama and mango version is a perfect example. It’s great for adding a zesty finish to seafood. Get our Jicama-Mango Salsa recipe.
Miki Kawasaki is a New York City–based food writer and graduate of Boston University's program in Gastronomy. Few things excite her more than a well-crafted sandwich or expertly spiced curry. If you ever run into her at a dinner party, make sure to hit her up for a few pieces of oddball culinary trivia.