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Salsas: The Core of Mexican Cuisine

Salsas: The Core of Mexican Cuisine

The quintessential symbol of Mexican gastronomy? It’s the sauce! Sauce in Mexico equates to salsa, the essential ingredient in the nation’s most popular dishes and antojitos (snacks).

There are many variations of salsa. Yet despite these variations, salsa is based on the combination of four main ingredients: green or red tomatoes, serrano chili, onion and garlic. (Serrano chili can be swapped out for any other fresh or dried chilies). 

Depending on the desired flavor and the ingredients selected, there’s an array of salsa preparation methods, including raw, roasted, boiled, fried, ground or chopped. Any change in the process can alter the results. The options are endless!

First, you need an indispensable tool, a molcajete. Designed and created in the pre-Hispanic era, specifically in Mesoamerica between 7,000 and 5,000 B.C, the molcajete resembles a mortar with three short legs made of volcanic stone. This bowl-shaped grinding stone imparts a very special flavor to food due to the minerals contained in the rock. 

The use of a molcajete is still very common in traditional Mexican cuisine, especially to grind ingredients for salsas. 

Interested in buying one so you can create salsas to accompany your daily meals-- or surprise your guests? The first step is to “cure” the stone. A specific procedure must be followed to season the surface of the utensil--and prevent stone particles from sticking to the food. 

There are many ways to cure a molcajete, but here’s the most reliable method:

  • Add dry corn and grind it to powder with the help of a temolote (the stone mallet used to crush ingredients). This will make the surface smoother. Cover the entire area with the powder. Repeat this process two or three times.
  • Grind grains of rice, which are finer than corn. This will polish the molcajete in another way. Repeat the process three to four times.
  • Wet the rice and grind it again. The remaining mass of rice and water will remove the dirt present in the pores of the stone.
  • When you’re done, wash the molcajete thoroughly with soap and water. It’s now ready to be used.

Here’s a sampling of a few of the most basic salsas and how to prepare them. 

Green salsa


18 oz. (500 g) green tomatoes

8 serrano chilies (adjust to taste)

1 garlic clove

Salt to taste

Preparation: Cook the tomatoes and chilies with the garlic and salt. Allow the ingredients to cool and blend.

Tomato salsa


1 big tomato, peeled, seedless and chopped

1/2 medium-size onion, chopped

2 fresh árbol chilies, chopped

Salt to taste

Preparation: Blend all the ingredients.

Pico de gallo


3 medium-size tomatoes, seedless

1 medium-size onion

6 serrano chilies

1/2 cup of coriander

Lime juice to taste 

Salt to taste

Preparation: Dice the tomatoes, onion and chilies, finely chop the coriander. Mix everything with the lemon juice and salt. You can add a little olive oil.

Salsa tamulada or Habanero chili salsa


20 habanero chilies, roasted in a comal

1 tbsp. salt, or to taste

Sour orange or sweet orange juice, or vinegar

Preparation: Grind the chilies with the salt in the molcajete. Add the orange juice little by little until you get the desired consistency.

Molcajete sauce


4 big tomatoes or 6 medium-size

6 serrano chilies

Salt to taste

Preparation: Grill the tomatoes and chilies on a comal or metal hot plate. Once cold, peel them, leaving a little skin to make the sauce for an appetizing look. Ground the chilies very well in the molcajete, add salt, then add tomatoes. If necessary, add a little water.

Morita chili salsa


15 morita chilies, first roasted on a comal and then soaked in boiling water

1 garlic clove

Salt to taste

Preparation: Blend all the ingredients.

Salsa borracha (Drunken sauce)


10 green tomatoes, cooked

6 pasilla chilies, grilled, deveined, and soaked in hot water

2 garlic cloves

2 tbsp. oil

1 tbsp. vinegar 

1/2 cup of pulque

1 tsp. salt 

3 bay leaves

3.5 oz. (100 g) crumbled aged cheese

Preparation: Grind the tomatoes together with the pasilla chilies, garlic, oil, vinegar, pulque, bay leaves and salt. Pour into a sauceboat, add the cheese and mix. Salsa borracha pairs perfectly with a taco de barbacoa (lamb meat).