I’ve never really found much appealing or enjoyable about jarred salsas. A true salsa should taste like summer tomatoes that have just the right balance of delicate sweetness and crisp acidity, punctuated with bright notes of lime, pungent raw onions, and shocking bursts of chili fire. Most jarred salsa makes me feel like I’m eating stale nachos in a bowling alley bar. It’s a shadow of what salsa can be, which is why I’ve long stayed away.
But, in vernacular American cooking, jarred salsa has become as essential of a tomato product as ketchup or spaghetti sauce. Jarred salsa’s going to be a part of your life whether you like it or not, so you should be eating the best one out there. With my severe salsa skepticism and unreasonably high expectations, who better than I to lead the search to find that brand for you?
In this test, I did not include any “fancy” salsas. I’ve enjoyed many a delightful salsa from small, independent producers, but alas, those brands are rarely available nationwide. For this taste test I went to two local supermarkets and Dollar General, and purchased every jar I could find in the $3-4 price range.
As per usual, I recruited three other, completely impartial people to participate in this blind taste test:
- Matt, who is both my husband and a respected chef
- My 11-year-old son who, though he has never actually tasted it, hates salsa. However, once he realized this could be a good PR move for his “YouTube career”, he magically became a salsa expert with some very intense opinions. What he doesn’t realize is that I have no intention of ever giving out the link to his channel, because he’s crossed me one too many times.
- My 12-year-old son, who continues to insist that because he spent ten minutes helping me with a thing for work, then he should be financially compensated, and his asking rate is astonishing.
Each salsa was served anonymously in a numbered bowl, tasted on regularly salted tortilla chips, and scored on a rubric with a section for comments. After our first pass, we tasted all of them again so we could compare and contrast, updated our comments, tallied up the scores, and unmasked our secret salsas. Here they are, ranked least to most favorite.
Everyone spat this salsa out on the first pass. The second pass, I was the only person willing to try it again, and that was only because this is my job and I’m supposed to give you guys detailed notes about exactly why it was awful. The reason no one wanted to taste it again is that it tastes like poison. I don’t even know what sort of chemical preservative this tastes like, but I’m guessing it’s one of the super scary ones that has letters and numbers in its name.
This salsa was thick, with a texture that felt almost unnatural. It had a heavy note of synthetic sweetness which I’m certain was added to temper the tomatoes’ acidity, but somehow managed to not obscure it at all. It was just two bad flavors, hanging out together in a jar of chunky goop that tasted nothing even resembling salsa.
It tasted just like Newman’s Own tomato sauce, but with a faint sprinkling of Tex Mex spices. It wasn’t particularly enjoyable flavor-wise, and texturally it was straight unappealing. This is a salsa that’s probably more fit for use in casseroles and slow cooker recipes, rather than as a dip. I can’t really ever say anything bad about Paul Newman, because even though he’s dead now, he used to be super hot. And he was also a good guy and all that stuff.
This was my personal second favorite, because it’s more akin to the runny fresh salsas I’ve had at my favorite taco joint. It had a good, clean, fresh tomato flavor, but it is a bit bland in flavor. At first, I was upset with the lack of the salt, but during the second pass I appreciated it: The blandness makes it easier to mix it with other sauces and condiments, like cheese and hot sauce. I wouldn’t serve it with chips, but I would keep it in the pantry to mix with other dips to make a little something I like to call Superdip (top secret/patent pending).
Chi-Chi’s closed all its American restaurants after they gave more than 500 people hepatitis A back in the early aughts. The salsa managed to survive, for some reason. Its texture was quite good, but it was far too acidic for my tastes. And not exciting acidic, like zesty lime juice; sad acidic, like plain white vinegar. Everyone agreed that you could doctor this up with some better ingredients, or use it in a recipe, and it wouldn’t be that bad.
Pace salsa is better than it needs to be. The texture was a bit on the thinner side, with well-defined diced tomatoes and flecks of jalapeno. Everyone commented that the flavors were really balanced—I myself wasn’t over the moon about Pace at first, but after I added a few shakes of hot sauce, I was quite smitten with it. After the test was over we collectively demolished the entire jar, along with one more salsa:
Maybe there’s some sort of subconscious nostalgic thing going on in my head, but eating this salsa made me so happy. This is exactly what you want jarred salsa to taste like: not a poor imitation of the real thing, but a beautiful entity all its own. Old El Paso was the flavor of family taco night when you were eight years old. It tastes of ultra-ripe tomatoes and electric yellow lemon, with a responsible level of natural sweetness. This salsa makes me want to take back everything bad I said earlier. I love jarred salsa now, guys. Salsa is the greatest.