The ingredient list for Salsa Roja will change based on which region you’re in, and who’s cooking it, and what kind of mood they’re in.
In other words, there are countless interpretations of Mexico’s most common salsa. I’ve been getting questions about it lately, so I wanted to offer up a couple options that should cover you next time Salsa Roja is called for.
Salsa Roja Recipe
Salsa Roja might sound exotic to gringos but it roughly translates as red sauce, a simple nomenclature that includes any salsa made with tomatoes as the base. If you’re using tomatillos as the base then you’ve officially entered green sauce territory, i.e. Salsa Verde.
The easiest version to make is one that uses ingredients that you’ve already gotten in the habit of buying (right?!!).
So in the above pic you’ve got:
1 garlic clove
And technically that’s all you need to make an authentic Salsa Roja. But don’t let the simple list fool you, with a few tricks these ingredients will create an unbelievably savory salsa — far superior to anything you can buy at the store.
Just be sure to roast those tomatoes…
And if it’s the first time you’re making it, add the jalapeno incrementally so you get the heat level to your liking.
This freshly blended salsa can be so rewarding that salt can be an afterthought — I’d say well over half the time I make it I don’t add any salt to it. If the tomatoes are struggling then you can add a pinch.
Click here if you want to see the recipe box for that version. It’s a workhorse that gives you tremendous return for very little effort, and as long as you get the heat level to your liking it will always be towards the top of your list.
Keeping that option in mind, let’s head to the other end of the Salsa Roja spectrum where you’ll find some fiery concoctions that have more concentrated flavors. You can think of these as topper sauces. They lie somewhere between a bottled hot sauce and a chunky sauce like the Tomato Jalapeno Salsa above.
You’ll also frequently see these salsas made with dried chiles, so that will be our starting point for this version.
But first throw 3 tomatoes in a 400F oven and let them roast while you work on the other ingredients.
This roasting step will become habit once you taste the difference — it lowers the acidity of the tomatoes and sweetens them up a bit.
Normally these tomatoes need about 20-25 minutes in the oven, but for this version I tend to just pull them out when I need them because there’s a simmer coming up on the horizon that will give them a final blast of heat.
Okay back to the chiles…start by wiping off any dusty crevasses with a damp towel. To de-seed them it’s easiest to cut off the stems and make a slit lengthwise, then just use your hands to pull out all the seeds and ribs.
We’ll eventually strain the sauce so don’t worry about getting rid of every last seed.
Meanwhile, saute 1/2 onion and 3 whole garlic cloves in a big dollop of oil.
Once the onion is getting tender add the dried chiles. For crowd control it can be easiest to cut the chiles up into smaller pieces.
Let the chiles cook for a few minutes over mediumish heat, just enough to wake them up.
Then add the roasted tomatoes to the pan along with:
1/2 teaspoon Mexican oregano
1 teaspoon salt
freshly cracked black pepper
2.5 cups water
1 chipotle in adobo (optional)
1 tablespoon adobo sauce (optional)
You can consider the chipotle in adobo and the adobo sauce optional. The adobo sauce has sweet undertones and I think this balances out the flavor of the dried chiles quite well. (We use the same idea in our Colorado Enchiladas.)
Let this simmer for 5 minutes or so and then add it to a blender and give it a good whirl.
Strain the sauce over a mixing bowl and discard the leftover solids. You might have to use the back of a spoon or spatula to push the sauce through the strainer.
You’ll end up with a fiery, concentrated Salsa Roja that is hoping to be used in moderation on grilled meats, breakfast dishes, and fingers.
Definitely take a final taste for salt level, I added another small pinch to this batch.
I also usually add a splash of cider vinegar so that it’ll keep well in the fridge in one of these beauties:
Salsa in a squeeze bottle might officially turn your home kitchen into a taqueria — this recipe will make a bit over 3 cups worth and that will easily fill one of these.
Keep it in the fridge because it seems to pop a little more when it’s cooled down. (Note: I prefer the Tomato Jalapeno Salsa directly out of the blender when it’s still warm from the roasted tomatoes.)
Okay, let me know if you have any questions about the world of Salsa Roja. At the very least, just know that there is a Salsa Roja version out there with your name on it. Once you get comfortable making a version that suits your palate you’ll find all sorts of uses for it. Said another way: many good things will happen.
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Here's a simple recipe for a fiery, concentrated batch of Salsa Roja.
- 6 Guajillo dried chiles
- 2 Ancho dried chiles (or 3 smaller Anchos)
- 3 tomatoes
- 1/2 onion
- 3 garlic cloves
- 1 chipotle in adobo (optional)
- 1 tablespoon adobo sauce (optional)
- 1/2 teaspoon Mexican oregano
- 1 teaspoon salt
- freshly cracked black pepper
- splash cider vinegar
- 2.5 cups water
- olive oil
Start by roasting the tomatoes in a 400F oven.
Use a damp towel to wipe off any dusty crevasses on the dried chiles. To de-seed them it's easiest to cut off the stem and make a slit lengthwise, then use your hands to pull out the ribs and seeds.
Saute 1/2 onion and 3 whole garlic cloves in a dollop of oil over medium heat. When the onion starts to soften add the dried chiles. (It's worth cutting the chiles into smaller pieces before adding them to the pan.)
Let the chiles cook for a few minutes and then add the roasted tomatoes to the pan along with: 1/2 teaspoon Mexican oregano, 1 teaspoon salt, freshly cracked black pepper, 2.5 cups water. (I also add 1 chipotle in adobo and 1 tablespoon of adobo sauce but this is optional.)
Simmer for 5 minutes or so and then add everything to a blender and combine well.
Strain the sauce over a mixing bowl and discard the leftover solids. You might have to use a spoon or spatula to push the sauce through the strainer.
Taste for salt level. I added another pinch of salt along with a splash of cider vinegar.
Serve immediately or store in an airtight container in the fridge (in a squeeze bottle!).
If you don't have Mexican oregano on hand I would probably just omit it rather than using regular oregano.
Normally tomatoes need about 20-25 minutes in the oven to fully roast. When there is a final simmer involved, as there is in this recipe, I tend to just pull the tomatoes out of the oven when I need them, knowing that the simmer will add a finishing blast of heat to them.
Our latest recipe is a batch of Spicy Chicken Tinga.