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The 3 Essential Ingredients Every Salsa Needs

If all you had in the whole wide world was a couple of tomatoes, some garlic, and a jalapeno pepper, you’d be okay. Know why? Because you would possess the three essential ingredients of salsa. These basic red salsa ingredients are fine on their own, but adding some herbs, spices, and squirting a lil’lime into the must-have trio creates the addictive sauce we can’t live without. Of course, if you’re wondering what the main ingredients are for salsa verde, or green salsa, then you start with tomatillos, which need to be roasted with the garlic and jalapenos—but we’ll get to that.

What ingredients are in salsa?

 Salsa is so tasty you’d think it’d require more effort. Of course, it can be as complex as you want it to be—roast the ingredients, add raw or grilled onions, drop in a dab of smoke flavoring, sprinkle in cilantro, or spike it up to thermal reactor level with a ghost or reaper pepper. But, at the fundamental level, salsa rojo and salsa verde remain simple recipes with only a few basic ingredients:

  • Tomatoes/Tomatillos. The main ingredient in red salsa (aka “salsa rojo”) is ripe, red tomatoes. Cherry, beefsteak, heirloom—any variety will do. On the other hand, the main ingredient in green salsa (“salsa verde”) is tomatillos, tomatoes’ small, green cousins that roast up sweet and bold for scrumptious salsa. Expert tip: Don’t eat raw tomatillos  unless you want your mouth to turn inside out from bitterness.
  • Garlic. Oh, beauteous bulb of flavor! This cousin to onions and shallots packs the right amount of intensity to bring out the brightness of tomatoes and tomatillos.
  • Jalapeno peppers. These medium-sized pod peppers pack a pleasant heat that scales up in zing if you include the membranes and seeds in your basic salsa. While you could substitute other chili peppers to change up the flavor or punch up the hot quotient, jalapenos are salsa’s OG.

What can I add to salsa for more flavor?

The better question here is what can’t you add to salsa for more flavor. We’ve tossed in mangos, peaches, or pineapples to concoct delectable fruit salsas. We’ve transformed mild-mannered salsa rojo into a medieval torture device with simple tweaks like reapers, habaneros, and ghost peppers for x-hot salsas that burn oh so good. Normal people, though, may add some of these ingredients to liven up a salsa that might be a bit too blah:

  • Lime or lemon for a zip of citrus. 
  • Cilantro for a pleasantly herbaceous tang.
  • Onions because you know everything’s better with onions.
  • Roasted tomatoes, peppers, or garlic because roasting anything provides a smoky flavor that we love. 
  • Black garlic for a complex, kinda sweet-kinda sour, mildly garlicky but finger-lickin fantastic taste.
  • Smoked salts for a fuller flavor.
  • Corn niblets or diced avocado for added texture and a hint of savory flavor.

What is homemade salsa made of?

Homemade salsa starts with the essential ingredients. For red salsa, many people choose Roma (plum) tomatoes because they’re easy to find, relatively inexpensive, and have a good flavor. But, tomayto-tomahto—use whichever ones float your boat. Chop the tomatoes to your desired size or toss ‘em in a blender for a smoother salsa, then chop up your garlic and jalapenos and mix them into the tomatoes. Stir it up, add salt and lime to taste, and voila! Note: if you’ve never diced jalapenos, know the seeds and membranes hold the heat. Don’t touch these; cut the pepper lengthwise, then cut out the seeds and membrane with your paring knife or scoop them out with a spoon. Touching the heaty parts of a pepper with your fingers then touching a body part with those same fingers results in a bad time.

With salsa verde, you’ll need to get a tad more sophisticated because you have to roast the tomatillos in a pan with olive oil, garlic, and jalapenos (and onions, if you like), then puree them in a blender with the cilantro, lime juice, and salt. Serve fresh or chill it in the fridge for a while first. If this is too much work and you just want to buy the stuff (no judgment here, in fact we think you’d be hard pressed to out-salsa our crack salsa chefs), then look for green salsas with these simple main ingredients and not a bunch of preservatives. Another note: While all salsa verde is green, not all green salsa is salsa verde. Other recipes can be green chile- or jalapeno-based salsa; so, while they’re green in color, you’re gonna get a whole different flavor that just might give you a nice, friendly, but meaningful, slap in the mouth. The take-away here is don’t just assume that every green salsa is salsa verde. 

Must-Try Salsas That Take The Condiment To The Next Level

Chilies, chilies, and more chilies. Of course, we build our salsas around the basics, then have as much fun as we can imagine. Five pepper salsa? Sure! Egyptian hummus salsa? Why not! We also can’t imagine our lives without black bean and corn salsa, especially when we’re building our Super Bowl nacho tower or inviting friends over for Enchilada Night.  While anyone can make a good salsa with the three essential ingredients, we strongly believe that “less is more” does not apply in this instance. More is more, and more is better.
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