- by Danielle Centoni
Nothing beats fresh homemade salsa made from ripe summer tomatoes. But when tomato season is over, store-bought it is. The tubs in the refrigerator section can often stand in fairly well for homemade, but they expire quickly, which means you can’t tuck a few away in the pantry for your emergency salsa needs. Plus, they’re far more expensive than the jarred stuff.
But the jarred salsa section at any grocery store is an overwhelming array of choices. There are heat levels to consider, varieties of chiles, smoky or charred versions, and add-ins like fruit or corn. So I decided to cut through the clutter and find the best, most versatile jarred salsa on grocery store shelves. I chose mainstream brands that can be found nationally, with medium spice level and no “creative” add-ins (a little charred pepper is fine, but no corn or mango, since that’s a whole other story).
Even though I narrowed the playing field down, I still ended up with ton of salsas to try (and I quickly found out it is actually possible to get sick of salsa). I gathered some salsa-loving friends and neighbors and we tasted everything at room temperature on their own and also with not-too-salty corn tortilla chips. I also tasted through the salsas several times over the course of a couple hours, to make sure every jar got a fair shake and wasn’t a victim of palate fatigue.
Some were really watery, some had unappetizingly large chunks of tomato. One tasted strongly of apple cider vinegar, another one tasted like a bowl of blackened pepper skins, and one had such an overwhelming cumin flavor it was like chomping on a spoonful of toasted cumin seeds. Most of the rest simply tasted like diced canned tomatoes or tomato soup, with hardly any peppers, garlic, or lime to lift them into salsa territory. Basically, most of them were pretty meh.
There was one jar, though, that quickly and consistently rose to the top, and we all agreed it was our favorite.
This salsa has a good, saucy texture with approachable chunks — not too big, but not nonexistent either. It smelled delicious, like a bowl of chili, while so many others we tried either smelled like vinegar, plain canned tomatoes, or soggy burned pepper skins. Flavor-wise, it was the most complex of the bunch, with depth, richness, and mildly smoky notes. The heat level was perfect, offering a good long burn that was warm but not at all overwhelming. (So many others that were labeled “medium” were actually way too mild.) We didn’t detect any “tequila” notes, but we suspect it might just serve to enhance the tomato flavor, just as vodka in tomato sauce does.