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Jarred Hot Salsas

By Cook's Illustrated Published April 2008

How we tested

We don’t like jarred salsa. Yes, we know it’s now America’s favorite condiment, but previous taste tests have been disappointing. Almost no jarred salsas have reached “recommended” status, and none have come close to the allure of homemade fresh salsa. But our prior taste tests have focused on mild and medium varieties. Might jarred hot salsas be more interesting than their timid cousins?

To find out, we sampled nine national brands and were surprised that most tasters didn’t need to quell the burn with cold milk or water as they nibbled. Only three salsas were considered sufficiently hot, and none were excessively incendiary.

These hot salsas were livelier and better than the mild salsas we’ve tasted in the past, with eight of the nine receiving passing grades. But even the best of the bunch were merely good, not great, and didn’t approach the quality of fresh salsa. Why? Good salsa relies on the interplay of fresh vegetable flavors and textures. Jarred salsas have the freshness and crispness cooked out of them.

Our first- and third-place salsas came closest to replicating the fresh flavors and colors of homemade salsa, in part because they had high percentages of tomatoes and vegetables: The test kitchen measured both at around 60 percent solid matter by weight. (By comparison, the lowest-rated salsa contains just 45 percent solids.) Our second-place brand contains an average amount of solids (51 percent) but uses roasted tomatoes to produce a fiery salsa that our tasters appreciated for its complexity.

Our advice: If you’re going to buy jarred salsa, go for the hot stuff.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

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.)*
Recommended

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.)*