Salsa sits firmly on the Mount Rushmore of dips. With so many variations that work so well—green, fruit-based, smoky, corn — it’s hard to tire of the stuff. It’s also no wonder grocery stores have entire chunks of aisles dedicated to the spicy snack but, in truth, there’s nothing better than a freshly homemade batch.
tequila cocktails and nosh or are preparing to celebrate When jarred and stored, some of the key ingredients like spicy peppers and lime juice can lose a bit of their pep. So if you’re seizing one of these unseasonably warm winter days to join a small crew for everyone’s favorite holiday, National Margarita Day (Feb. 22), you should try making your next salsa from scratch. It’s easy (like…really easy) and there are a few super simple steps and considerations that’ll take a homemade salsa from just fine to fabulous.
In a new online MasterClass, superstar chef Gabriela Cámara (Restaurante Contramar) will walk you through a number of classic dishes and the fundamentals of Mexican flavors with a focus on seafood. Chef Cámara also explains how to make three distinct salsas in detail, including a bright salsa verde cruda (raw green salsa), spicy onion & habanero salsa, and smoky salsa tatemada (burnt/blistered salsa).
We tracked chef Cámara down for a few of her essential tips for making a perfect salsa, including one ingredient you might never have guessed for keeping a green (verde) salsa bright and ultra-crisp.
The Chilis Matter
Chili is the building block of salsa, but from there you can add different herbs, spices, and vegetables to make it your own. Chef Cámara stresses the importance of sourcing the best and freshest chilis you can find, and if you can’t find certain ones at the grocery store, try a farmers market, Latin grocer, or online specialty retailer like MexGrocer.com.
Cole & Mason Mortar and Pestle, $9.99 on Sur La Table
Perfect if you like your salsa smoother and the most vessel for serving any Mexican dip
Add Gem Lettuce (Yes, Lettuce) For a Crisp Salsa Verde Cruda
When making salsa verde cruda, the trick to a more concentrated flavor is fresh tomatillos. Along with the tomatillos, toss in a bit of lettuce for a fresher, crisper taste. Chef recommends gem lettuce or something similar.
Habaneros Give the Best Flavor
Habanero is one of the spicier chili peppers you can find, but it’s also one of the most appealing and flavorful. Cámara suggests using plastic gloves when handling habaneros, as the chili oils can be dangerous if it gets in your eyes.
There are also several ways to chop habaneros, but when making salsa brava, chop perpendicularly through the habanero, as thin as you can get them. Every part of the pepper can be used except the stem.
Employ a Comal for Blistered Peppers
Salsa tatemada means “burnt” or “blistered,” so everything you put into the salsa is roasted. The best way to achieve the taste is to roast your peppers on a clay or metal comal or an extremely hot pan. Make sure to keep a window open or use an exhaust fan because the aroma is intense.
Lodge Cast Iron Comal, $14.88 on Walmart
For roasting your salsa peppers.
Have Fun and Experiment
Chef Cámara implores anyone making salsa at home to experiment. Use other ingredients and play around until you make it yours and, above all, have fun. The ingredients for salsa are generally inexpensive, so if you try something that doesn’t totally work, the risk is fairly low but the reward could be pure salsa magic.
Chef Cámara’s Salsa Brava Recipe
The name of this salsa translates to “fierce,” and with good reason—the raw habaneros featured are super spicy (Cámara recommends using plastic gloves when handling them). That said, this quick -pickled salsa has a bright, fresh flavor that pairs well with seafood, tostadas, sopes, and more. Try making this with colored habaneros or onions for a more festive aesthetic.
Chef Gabriela Camara's Salsa Brava
- 1 medium white onion
- 5 ounces habanero chiles
- couple pinches dry oregano
- 3 ounces fresh lime juice
- 1.7 ounces extra virgin olive oil
- salt and pepper to taste
- Remove the outer layer of the onion’s skin. Place on a cutting board cut side down and slice it into thin half-moons.
- Separate the pieces with your fingers to ensure that they all marinate evenly.
- Place the onions in a mixing bowl. Slice the habanero chiles perpendicularly (stems, seeds, and all) using plastic gloves. Should result in thin slices that resemble flowers.
- Add the habaneros to the bowl with the onion.
- With the gloves still on, mix with your hands to combine.
- Add the salt, oregano, lime juice, and olive oil to the habanero-onion mixture and use a spoon to combine.
- Allow the salsa to sit at room temperature for about 20 minutes before serving.
- Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.
For more unique insights and fundamentals of Mexican cooking, check out chef Cámara’s comprehensive lesson, available now on MasterClass.
Cámara Teaches Mexican Cooking, $90 on MasterClass
Header image courtesy of Chowhound.