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Pico, salsa, hot sauce, mole, enchilada and more: A guide to Mexican salsas and sauces

Fresh, zesty salsas and sauces are an integral part of a traditional Mexican meal. Learn about some of the most popular Mexican sauces and salsas, and find out how to use them to create unforgettable meals — with a kick!

Variety of salsa

According to Chef Frank Johnson, executive chef at Roaring Fork, Stonelake, in Austin, Texas, Mexican dishes are all about sauces and salsas. “Any time you’re at a traditional Mexican meal, you’ll see many different condiments and several kinds of salsa on the table,” he explained. “Everything is fresh, and the idea is to use all those flavors together. There’s something great about a fresh, chunky pico de gallo and a zesty, smooth tomatillo sauce coming together in one bite of a taco.”

So what exactly is pico de gallo? Check out this simple guide to understanding Mexican sauces and salsas.

Mexican salsas & sauces guide

  • Pico de gallo is an authentic Mexican salsa made with onions, tomatoes and jalapenos. It’s also referred to as “salsa fresca.” Other ingredients, such as lemon or lime juice, can also be added. This salsa is commonly included in tacos and fajitas.

  • Salsa roja (red sauce) is made with cooked tomatoes, onion, garlic, chili peppers and fresh cilantro. It’s commonly used as a condiment in both Mexican and Southwestern cuisine.
  • Salsa verde (green sauce or tomatillo sauce) is made with tomatillos, onion, garlic, chili peppers and cilantro. Use it to accompany just about any Mexican dish for extra flavor, including tacos, quesadillas, fajitas, burritos and enchiladas.
  • Mango salsa packs a sweet and spicy punch. This salsa is made of mango, red bell pepper, onion, chili pepper and cilantro. Use mango salsa as a garnish on grilled chicken or fish, or even on nachos.
  • Chipotle salsa combines spicy and smoky, thanks to ingredients such as chipotle chilis, garlic, tomatoes, cilantro and spices. Pair chipotle salsa with carnitas or nachos for an extra kick!
  • Hot sauce, or salsa picante, can be added to just about any Mexican dish to rev up your taste buds. Hot sauce typically refers to any spicy sauce made from chili peppers and other ingredients. Mexican hot sauce focuses more on flavor than intense heat.
  • Mole is a Mexican sauce with an unlikely ingredient list, including chili peppers and spices, garlic, onion, unsweetened chocolate and almonds. Somehow this funky list combines to create a savory, intoxicating sauce that can be served over meats, veggies, tamales or enchiladas. Versions of mole differ from various regions of Mexico.
  • Enchilada sauce is a Mexican chili pepper sauce used to spice up an enchilada. This sauce typically includes ingredients such as chili powder, garlic, onion, tomato sauce and other seasonings.
  • Guacamole is an avocado-based dip that also includes tomato, onion, garlic and lime juice. This dip is traditionally made by using a pestle and mortar. Besides accompanying chips, guacamole can also be added to your favorite Mexican dish for additional flavor.

Now that you know what these Mexican salsas and sauces are, how do you use them? Check out these tips from Chef Johnson:

1Get fresh

According to Johnson, the most important tip is to keep things fresh and simple. “The biggest key to salsas and sauces is the freshness of your ingredients.”

2Key ingredients

Johnson and his team use tomatoes, onions, salt, pepper and fresh poblano peppers as a base for many of their sauces and salsas.

3Fire it up

“With very traditional Mexican food, you’ll see a lot of cooking that takes place over an open flame, and even on outdoor wood fires,” Johnson said. So he recommends using wood-fired cooking techniques as often as possible to capture that authentic taste.

More salsa recipes

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