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Mild Jarred Red Salsa

Published February 2016
Update: October 2016
Since we last tasted mild jarred red salsas, Herdez changed the formulation of its product. While the new Herdez Salsa Casera has a thicker texture than the old, we still can't recommend it, as it remains too spicy for a mild salsa.

How we tested

Salsa ranks among America’s favorite dips—and nothing beats the jarred varieties for convenience, especially during the winter months when it can be hard to find high-quality fresh tomatoes to make salsa from scratch. But, jarred salsas can often be disappointing: mushy, bland, and overcooked. In the past, we’ve struggled to find medium and hot versions that we liked, though we’ve always managed to uncover a few good products. Still, many people prefer their salsa to be less fiery. Could we find a mild salsa that got the ratios of heat, salt, acidity, and sweet tomato flavor just right?

To find out, 21 America’s Test Kitchen editors and cooks tasted seven top-selling mild salsas—first plain and then with tortilla chips. One problem emerged almost immediately: Some of the mild salsas weren’t mild at all. In fact, two were deemed too hot when eaten on their own. A little heat wasn’t entirely unwelcome, though; the very mildest salsas came across as bland. With or without chips, however, tasters preferred salsas that had more moderate heat levels. Our top brand had a bit of a kick but didn’t overwhelm more sensitive palates.

Tasters were looking for balance in their salsas. Heat aside, sweetness was critical—brands that had 2 grams of sugar per serving (likely due to the use of tomato concentrate or puree) tended to rate higher than those that had 1 gram or less. But acidity was just as important, if not more so. Six of the seven salsas used vinegar to boost the brightness of their tomatoes; salsas that lacked enough of a sour counterpunch were considered “stale” and “too sweet.” Salt levels didn’t matter to testers unless they were significantly low; while the other salsas averaged about 217 milligrams of sodium per serving, a salsa that had only 65 milligrams was dismissed as “flat.” Salsas with flavors that seemed “off” were rejected, as were those overladen with herbs, which imparted a “marinara-like” or “chemically tasting” flavor. Tasters preferred salsas in which the tomato flavor was dominant but still allowed them to “taste the different elements” of the onions and peppers.

The biggest problem was texture. Freshly made salsa weeps vegetable juice as it sits; we found this to be an issue with these jarred salsas, too. To get a better sense of the composition of the salsas, we strained a cup of each overnight in an attempt to separate the solids from the liquids. One jarred salsa that tasters found “runny” shed 17 teaspoons of watery fluid overnight, almost a third of its total volume. Other brands overcompensated for the seepage issue, adding thickeners that kept liquid in but made the salsas “slimy” and “viscous”; one salsa thickened with cornstarch lost only 5 teaspoons of liquid, looking just as gloppy and unnaturally glossy in the morning as it had the night before. Tasters preferred salsas that used either tomato puree or tomato concentrate to give the base full, natural body.

The texture, size, and uniformity of the vegetable chunks were also significant. Our winning salsa boasted even ó-inch onion and pepper pieces that still had some crunch to them. Other salsas featured vegetables that were overcooked, cut into wildly different shapes and sizes, or too big to stay on a chip.

While six of the seven products we tested left us wanting, we did find one that measured up. Better still, it was the cheapest one in our testing. For a salsa that has modest heat, balanced flavor, firm vegetable chunks, and a dip-friendly base consistency, we choose Chi-Chi’s.

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The Results


Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*