Homemade salsas, with their fresh ingredients, often have more complex flavor profiles (and are more nuanced in terms of their heat levels) than the jarred stuff. There are many varieties of fresh salsas, each with different styles and flavors. Homemade salsa can be anywhere on a spectrum from mild to super hot. While increasing the heat in a salsa might seem simple — just add more chili pepper to the recipe — there’s actually a little more to it to get the flavor profile just right. Let’s break down how to make homemade salsa hotter while keeping your salsa’s overall flavor in mind.
Note: These tactics also worked for canned salsa. But with the freshness component of homemade, we put more of a focus on mapping a pepper’s flavor to the salsa’s flavor.
The best all purpose option: Add raw chili peppers
Tossing in some chopped, uncooked hot peppers is by far the best way to spice up a raw salsa that is a little too mild for your liking. Choose the chili pepper that will deliver your preferred heat level and flavor. For example, jalapeño peppers will give you a mild heat with a bright, grassy flavor. But watch out since some are milder than others. That’s one of the difficulties with using fresh peppers – their Scoville heat range can really impact the overall heat, and it’s hard to plan for.
If you want to step the heat level up a little beyond the jalapeño, try serranos (comparably bright and grassy in flavor). You can take it even further with habaneros, which are a good option when you want a truly fiery salsa. In addition, habaneros have a fruity flavor that works really well with sweeter salsas.
If you want your salsa even spicier still, feel free to opt for bhut jolokia chilies. The bhut jolokia is also known as the ghost pepper. Take care as this is a major super-hot jump up on the pepper scale. For it and the habanero, learn how to properly handle these chilies and treat chili burn.
For more acidic salsas: Add pickled chili peppers
Jarred, pickled chili peppers bring heat along with the vinegary acidity of their brine. Add pickled peppers to salsas like salsa cruda and salsa roja or any other salsa that will benefit from additional acidity along with the increase in heat. The easiest pickled chilies to find will be banana peppers, pepperoncini, or jalapeños. The first two provide a milder spice while the jalapeño has more a mild-medium heat.
For roasted salsas: Add roasted chili peppers
Salsa ranchera is a type of salsa made with roasted ingredients. The roasting gives it a smoky, charred flavor profile that some liken to the taste of black pepper. Adding roasted hot chilies can add some heat, without diluting the smoky notes.
If time is on your side: Let it sit overnight
Making your salsa a day before you need it and keeping it overnight in the refrigerator can sometimes make it hotter. The peppers in your salsa will continue releasing capsaicin as it sits, making the dish continually hotter over time.
For a quick fix: Add hot sauce
Arguably the easiest solution for an overly mild salsa is to add a hot sauce to it. Hot sauce is both affordable and easy to find. Most hot sauces will give you mild heat combined with tartness. The tartness comes from the vinegar base used for Mexican favorites like Tapatio and Valentina. The drawback of hot sauce is that unlike other solutions, it means that you will be adding moisture to your salsa, which may not be ideal.
Another quick fix: Add cayenne pepper
One of the reliable ways to add heat to food without also adding other flavors is to use some form of cayenne pepper. You can add crushed red pepper flakes, which are usually made of cayenne or you can add cayenne pepper powder. Cayenne peppers give a moderate amount of heat to salsa without affecting the moisture level.