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Jarred Medium Salsa

By Cook's Illustrated Published August 2013

How we tested

In an ideal world, we’d always make homemade salsa. In the real world, when we’re pressed for time, we rely on the open-the-jar convenience of store-bought. But the sheer number of products and variations is daunting. Which tastes best?

We focused on the red Tex-Mex style, which dominates U.S. sales, and on a medium level of heat. Medium salsa outsells both mild and hot versions two to one, according to commercial salsa makers and among our own readers. Sales figures compiled by Chicago market research firm IRi gave us the seven top selling national jarred products.

We tasted them plain and with tortilla chips. And when all was said and done, just one salsa was left standing. Tasters had reservations, or worse, about the other six. How did that one product get it right?

To begin, while many of the other salsas were marred by “mushy,” “slimy” vegetables, “with no textural contrast,” our top pick included firm, crunchy, evenly diced vegetables. Moreover, where other salsas were out of whack—overdoing the tomatoes or hot peppers or onions—our favorite got the ratios right.

No question, the heat level mattered, too. Salsas that used bell pepper were too mild. At the other end of the spectrum, we knocked points off one product that was too hot. Is it too much to ask that medium salsa be medium? We preferred medium heat from chile peppers, specifically the jalapeño chiles that our top three products used.

When we scrutinized labels, we discovered that our top three contained more sugar per serving than the bottom four. Not granulated sugar, mind you. Two products used granulated sugar to sweeten the salsa, an addition our tasters considered misguided. The better salsas derived complexity from naturally sweet tomatoes. Products with less natural sugar seemed unbalanced—too hot or too sour (the acid, incidentally, came from vinegar, not lime juice, which is used in many homemade salsas). A few salsas tasted too salty. But beyond that observation, salt levels didn’t illuminate much about our likes and dislikes.

While it pains us to find fault in six of the seven products in our lineup, we prefer to focus on the positive: our winning salsa is balanced, fresh-tasting, and has a nice level of heat. It’s still not homemade, but it’s the next best thing.

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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.)*