Salsa takes on many different forms as you might expect from a dish that has been around for thousands of years in one form or another. The Aztecs, Mayans, and Incans all had their versions of it. The list below covers six of the most popular types of salsa that you should know. Each has its own best use cases, so learn them and use them well!
Pico de gallo
Pico de gallo is an uncooked salsa — also called a salsa cruda — made with fresh ingredients. The typical pico de gallo contains tomato, onion, and peppers along with cilantro and lime juice. You can make it hot with jalapeño or serrano chilies or you can use bell peppers for a mild version.
The more traditional Mexican pico de gallo recipes can include everything from jicama to oranges. It is possible to eat pico de gallo as a dip but it is not a liquid or even a paste, which means that it is not ideal for that purpose. Pico de gallo works best when you use it to top tacos and various other Mexican dishes. You can even eat it by itself as a refreshing salad alternative.
With a name that means “red sauce”, salsa roja is one of the better known Mexican salsas. It is made with ripe red tomatoes to give it its characteristic bright red color. Salsa roja is most similar to the jarred salsa so popular throughout the United States. Salsa roja is the main salsa in most Tex-Mex restaurants.
Most recipes will include onions, garlic, and chili peppers. Salsa roja is traditionally used as a condiment for tacos and burritos. It’s also used as a topper for meats like chicken and beef.
To give it the green color referred to in the name, the Mexican version of salsa verde is usually made with tomatillos instead of tomatoes. Aside from the tomatillos, other ingredients are the same ones that show up in other salsa recipes like salsa roja. The typical salsa verde ingredients include peppers, onions, and cilantro.
Note that while tomatillo salsa is what is most often referred to as salsa verde, some people consider other green sauces like chimichurri sauce to also fall into the salsa verde category. Chimichurri sauce is a bright green Argentinian sauce made with cilantro and parsley.
Unlike the other salsas on this list, salsa criolla is red onion-based rather than tomato-based. Other ingredients include aji amarillo peppers and cilantro. A salsa criolla will also have lime juice as a source of acidity — think of it as a ceviche without the seafood. You determine how hot it is by how much of the pepper you add.
Another thing that makes it different from most of the popular salsas is that it is from Peru rather than being a Tex-Mex or Mexican staple. You serve salsa criolla primarily as a side dish, though it also works as a condiment.
Taco sauce is what this salsa’s name translates to and it is traditionally served at Mexican taco stands. Similar to Pace’s Picante sauce, taco sauce is known for being spicy. While its main function is as a taco condiment, it works as a dip as well. Use it like salsa roja or any of the standard salsas.
Salsa ranchera delivers a few novel twists on the standard red sauce recipe since it involves roasting the tomatoes for a smokier, more savory flavor. Bringing additional umami notes to the mix is Worcestershire sauce, called salsa inglesa — or English sauce — in Mexico. Salsa ranchera is best known as the type of salsa used to make huevos rancheros, but you can use it like any other tomato-based salsa — as a topping or a dip.