Taste Test: What's the Best Store-Bought Salsa?
As opposed to most condiments, there’s no natural go-to brand when it comes to salsa. Ketchup has Heinz and mayo has Hellman’s, but America’s most popular condiment has no natural default brand. We each may have a personal preference, but for the most part when we’re at the supermarket we tend to grab the one that’s most convenient. And that’s a real shame, because some are far superior to others. We put 13 different mild salsas to the test, and one rose to the top of the pack.
Salsa is the Spanish translation of “sauce,” and throughout Latin America it means literally just that, and can be any one of thousands of different sauces. But when we think of salsa here in the U.S., we tend to think of what we find in a jar in the supermarket (which is actually more of a cooked pico de gallo), so that’s what we’re testing out for you.
In order to increase shelf life, all jarred supermarket salsas have been cooked, giving them a flavor and texture that’s different from the freshly-prepared salsas that you find in Mexican restaurants. That doesn’t necessarily make them any worse, just different.
Even if they bear no resemblance to a real salsa cruda you’ll find in Mexico, Americans are wild for salsa. In 1992, salsa sales surpassed that of tomato ketchup, making it the most popular condiment in America, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a party without chips and salsa (and if you do, it’s probably not a party worth staying at).
There are dozens upon dozens of varieties of jarred salsa out there, from ones with beans and corn to ones that replace tomatoes with tomatillos. For our purposes, we stuck with the most traditional tomato salsas we could find, from 13 different brands. We tested mild salsas so spiciness wouldn’t overpower any other flavors, and judged the brands’ offerings on the following criteria: texture, flavor, chunk size and distribution, how well it clings to the chip, and overall enjoyment factor.
In the end, it was obvious that not all salsas are created equal. Some were a soupy mess, others had funky and unappealing background flavors, and others had our tasters coming back for seconds. So read on to learn which salsa you would be wise to serve at your Cinco de Mayo party, and which ones you should leave on the shelf.
From the outside, this salsa looks like it should be a winner: Big chunks of tomato, onion, and cilantro, resulting in something that looks a lot more like fresh pico de gallo instead of salsa. The flavor proves otherwise, however: it was very thin and soupy, and the vegetables within tasted overcooked. Our tasters noticed what can best be described as a “funky” after-taste (“like Clorox,” said one), and all the others agreed that the flavor was “odd.” “It seems like it’s trying hard to be artisanal, but it comes across as just water with some vegetables thrown in,” said another.
Price: $2.29/ 17.6 ounces
We had high hopes for this more upscale brand of salsa, which has a high price to boot. Unfortunately, it was nearly universally disliked. Even though it contains ingredients like lime juice and chile de arbol, all our tasters agreed that it was more like “tomato-flavored water” than salsa, with several comparing it to room-temperature tomato soup. Watery and lacking any discernible chunks, chips dipped into it came out coated in only tomato-flavored water with a zero percent cling rate.
Price: $5.99/ 15 ounces
Want to try making your own salsa? Here's how: Canning Salsa: Make and Can Salsa Safely.