Mexican Salsas

Mexican salsa serves as a staple of Mexican cuisine and has made its way into other cuisines around the world creating a satisfying, flavorful and spicy addition to any dish. There are three main salsas highlighted in Mexican cooker that add character and heart from the ingredients of Mexico’s fertile land.

History of Mexican Salsa

Salsa is traced back to the indigenous Aztec, Mayan and Inca Indians who would mix tomatoes, chilis and other spices together to add flavor to their food.  The land was rich and perfect for growing tomatoes, which during the time had not yet been introduced to any other region off the mainland. It was not until the Spaniard’s conquest of Mexico 1519-1521, that salsa was named.

Sophie D. Coe, author of America’s First Cuisines, describes the beginning of salsa catalyzed by Fransiscan Missionary, Bernardino de Sahagún. Sahagún was sent to Mexico in 1529 after Hernando Cortes conquered the Aztec Empire. He stayed in Mexico for the remaining 60 years of his life documenting the life of the Aztec people. In his writings about the Aztec markets, he described many ingredients of modern salsas as “hot sauces, shredded chile, hot chile, yellow chile, smoked chile and heated sauce.”

The Spaniards learned of salsa and the practice of making it from the Aztec lords who would smash squash seeds together with tomatoes and chile to make a sauce. They would then use this sauce as a condiment with turkey, venison, and seafood. This combination was later named salsa by Spanish priest and missionary, Alonso de Molina, in 1571.

Since the beginning of salsa in the 16th century, it has continued to expand for hundreds of years, now incorporated in bottled salsa and hot sauce sold all around the world. In America, many southern states developed bottled salsa companies such as: La Victoria, Desert Rose Salsa, Oretga and El Paso Chili Company.

The Chiles

In order to achieve a better understanding of Mexican salsas, it is important to know the different chiles to use according to the way they are going to make your salsa taste. They each are combined with a certain flavor and intensity level of heat. Depending on what flavor you want to get and the level of spiciness, will depend on the chile with which you choose to make your salsa.


Originally cultivated in Xalapa, Veracruz, Mexico, these are perhaps the most well-known peppers. They are popular for their versatility. They can be pickled, roasted and filled. Jalapeños hold their moderate to high heat around the membrane of the seeds. To achieve a less spicy salsa with great flavor, remove the seeds and spine of the chile. Jalapeño Salsa Recipe


This mild chile originates from Puebla, Mexico. It is characterized with thick walls and is ideal for stuffing. They give a great earthy flavor and are great for really mild salsas. Occasionally, some can be very hot with unpredictable heat. These are often sweeter in flavor, if you want to make a sweeter salsa. These are widely used in Puebla to make Mole Poblano.


These skinny bright red peppers will add a natural grassy flavor to your salsa. Arbol chiles are most often substituted for cayenne pepper in recipes and tend to be very hot.  Arbol Chile Recipe


Habanero chiles are the hottest chiles in the world, so proceed with caution. These chiles found in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, give a floral and fruity taste to begin with before a rush of heat bombards your mouth and nostrils. This is a great chile for making fiery salsas that are extremely flavorful. Habanero Salsa Recipe


Found in the mountain regions of Puebla and Hidalgo, Mexico, this thin-walled chile is the best for making salsa. These green chiles are about five times as spicy as jalapeños and are typically eaten raw. Serrano Salsa Recipe

Make sure to use caution when cooking with any of these chiles. When the oils come in contact with your skin, eyes or face can cause severe burns. Also, when grinding chiles, make sure to avoid the chile dust as it will irritate your eyes and throat.

Three Main Mexican Salsas

All Mexican salsas are typically made with a base of onions, tomatoes, garlic and chiles. With this base, different variations of salsas are made for different dishes.

Roasted Salsas

Roasted salsas are achieved by roasting the tomatoes and chiles. This process gives the salsas a rustic and smoky barbequed flavor. These salsas are well rounded and can be used for many different dishes. Usually, roasted salsas are best paired with meats because they enhance the earthy flavor of most meat dishes. Here is a great recipe for the traditional Mexican Chile con Carne.

Chile Based Salsas

Chile based salsas are used mainly for dishes such as enchiladas and sopes. They are made from dried chiles, typically pasilla and huajillos chiles. These give a sweet and pungent flavor to the salsa you are making. These salsas are best paired with more starchy foods and foods containing cheese and other dairy products. Enchilada Sauce

Tomatillo Salsa

Tomatillo Salsa is known to be the first salsa made in indigenous Mexico. This salsa is made with green tomatoes and is very citrus in flavor. Tomatillos can range in spiciness depending on the type of chile pepper used, but most are made with either serranos or jalepeños along with cilantro, white onion and lime. This salsa is also known as “Salsa Verde” or green salsa. Tomatillo is best served with pork, chicken and fish. Tomatillo Recipe

The history of Mexican salsa dates far back to the 16th century when it was first named and recognized by Spanish conquistadors in Mexico. However, the origin extends further into Mexican culture from the mixture of chiles and spices by the indigenous. In modern time, the use of Mexican grown chiles into various have transformed not only Mexican cuisine, but other cuisines around the world into a spicy flavorful fare. Many different salsas have been created from different Mexican chiles and will continue to spice up any meal for centuries to come.



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