Mild Jarred Red 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.