How to Make Salsa Out of Anything
Chef Wes Avila is adamant that making salsa is "easier than making marinara sauce." He theorizes that people are often intimidated by ingredients like tomatillos and guajillo chiles if they are not familiar with them, and therefore they believe salsa to be a complicated condiment. But Avila swears that you can make salsa out of pretty much anything, as long as you stick to his easy-to-follow and highly-adaptable formula.
Salsas essentially fall into four categories, according to Avila: raw, roasted, fire, and nut-based. Raw salsas, like a classic pico de gallo, center on all fresh ingredients, where no component gets cooked. Roasted salsas, or what Avila likes to describe as "Pace Picante" salsas, are those where a number of the elements are roasted in an oven and then blitzed in a food processor. Fire salsas are where components like whole tomatoes and onions are charred over an open flame, and nut-based salsas are the most unique of the bunch, in which ingredients like almonds and sesame add a deeply savory and fatty note. (Salsa macha is a classic example.) The ratios, Avila says, are up to you. The only limitations are the contents of your fridge—and your imagination.
Add in something for brightness. Sure, fresh lemon or lime juice is great, but Avila is partial to a splash or two of vinegar, especially white vinegar, to really punch up the flavors of a salsa. Feel free to use any vinegar you have on hand, such as balsamic or apple cider vinegar.
Members of the allium family are always invited to the salsa party. "You need them," Avila warns, "or it will be a flat salsa." That doesn't mean you have to throw an onion into every salsa you make: Some versions taste better with a shallot or a couple of cloves of garlic blitzed in instead.
Chiles are the next crucial layer to building a great salsa—whether it's a chunk of fresh jalapeño; a few serranos, if you really love heat; or a rehydrated dried pepper, like a chile de árbol. "Start slow, but don't be intimidated by the chiles," Avila advises.
Tomato or Tomatillo Base
Unless you're making a fruit-based salsa, tangy tomatoes or tomatillos are non-negotiable. "Even canned tomatoes can make a great salsa," says Avila.
This final flavor layer is optional, but Avila encourages you to use whatever you have on hand to take your salsa to the next level. Add fresh fruit like peaches or a handful of pomegranate arils, swap pistachios for almonds when making a nut-based salsa, or use multiple types of alliums. Avila has gone so far as to even use leftover baba ghanoush when riffing on an almond salsa he loves to make.