On the topic of salsa (and for our purposes, we’re talking pico de gallo), the name of the game is ratio. You like a bit more zing? Add more lime juice. Want more bite and heat? Add greater quantities of onions and jalapeno peppers.
After you’ve determined the perfect balance, now what? How could you take those six standard ingredients and build upon that beautiful alchemy? We’ve solicited some of the foremost salsa authorities in America for their one tip to help bring your pico de gallo game to the next level.
Lemon juice, vegetable oil
We’re always looking to make our salsas last a bit longer. If you’re going to have a salsa that sits for an hour or more, use lemon juice instead of lime. Lime has higher acidity, and it “cooks” the vegetable faster—it makes the vegetable lose its texture and turn soft. Here’s another tip: If you’re going to make pico de gallo and you really like the flavor of lime, add a bit of vegetable oil first. The oil coats and preserves the vegetables, which slows down the acid of the lime juice cutting through. Same thing if you’re making a pureed salsa, like a salsa verde—add a touch of oil. It’s going to make it creamier and help preserve longer in the dish.
—Eddie Hernandez, Taqueria del Sol in Georgia and Tennessee
Orange and lime
I really like the combination of orange and lime personally, especially if you’re using a chile like habanero. Habaneros have a tropical, fruity flavor, and I find adding a ratio of 1/3 orange juice and 2/3 lime juice compliments really well in your salsa.
—Brian Enyart, Dos Urban Cantina in Chicago
My recipe doesn’t call for it, but you might consider using red onions instead of white onions in your pico de gallo. It has a slightly sharper flavor that blends really well with the tomatoes and lime juice. I love the flavor of it, and visually it’s very pretty. We all eat with our eyes first.
—Sylvia Casares, Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen in Houston
Roast your tomatoes and tomatillos
For more flavorful salsas, particularly ones with tomatillo or tomatoes, is roast those ingredients under a broiler on a sheet pan. With tomatillos they can be almost black, which you can use as is. Tomato skins are thicker than tomatillos, so you may want to remove some of those black patches. But you’ll still get that roasty flavor in the flesh. And if you can’t, I would line a sauté pan with aluminum foil—this just saves you from cleaning up a mess. Also, you don’t want to pour out that juice out—use it in your salsa, it’s really sweet.
—Richard James, Frontera Grill in Chicago
Dig around your fridge
Don’t hold yourself to the tomato-onion-jalapeno trinity. Use what’s in your fridge. For instance, if I’m making a salsa to spoon on fish, I might use strawberries, cucumbers, Serrano chiles, maybe watermelon, cantaloupe or honeydew. I love roasted pineapples too in a salsa—caramelize it in a sauté pan. I also love pomegranate seeds. They add a pop, a fruit flavor, and a burst of color all at the same time.
—Deborah Scott, Cohn Restaurant Group in San Diego
I have one big secret: Distilled white vinegar is your friend. Any salsa, even if you’re using straight lime juice, can have its flavors enhanced—without changing the physical makeup—with vinegar. Distilled white vinegar boosts the brightness in your dish. It works in the same way that salt does—it underscores the flavor. A lot of people will also use citric acid powder too. You just need a little, I’m talking a half tablespoon at the end.
—John Manion, El Che Bar in Chicago
Grill your limes
I discovered something while grilling outside: Grill your cut limes before squeezing into your pico de gallo. Grill it for maybe three minutes, let it cool off, then squeeze it in. It adds a nice smokey flavor, goes along with summer dishes, and also makes it easier to squeeze all that juice from the flesh. You can used grilled limes on your fish, as well as in a drink.
—Hugo Ortega, Hugo’s/Xochi/Backstreet Cafe in Houston
In my pico de gallo, my secret ingredient is Mexican oregano, which is something my mom used to do for her recipe. It’s more like a wild oregano as opposed to the Italian oregano, though not super difficult to find. Get it really finely broken down in your hands so you get those essential oils out to impart themselves in the flavor of pico de gallo. As far as the chili, I like to use serrano and jalapeno; serrano you can go a bit lighter on and still deliver the kick.
You also want very finely minced onion. I think the idea with the onion is you could use white onion as opposed to a regular Spanish onion; it has a milder flavor… and if you grate it on a box grater, you’ll get a more uniform texture and flavor than by chopping it.
—Aarón Sánchez, Johnny Sanchez in New Orleans