The Food Lab Rapido: Pico de Gallo

The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

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Mexican Food

Recetas deliciosas to transport your tastebuds south of the border.

Oh boy, pico de gallo! They sure don't make it like this in Ohio!

Or so says Weird Al in his Rico Suave tribute Taco Grande.

Unfortunately, his implication that Ohio is a Mexican food black hole is a false one. I've had some of the best tacos in my life in Ohio, pico de gallo and all!

Pico de gallo literally translates to "rooster beak," and while the etymology is not exactly exhaustively documented, I trust the New Food Lover's Companion's explanation that the finger motion you use when picking up bits of pico de gallo to stuff into your tacos or top your totopos resembles a rooster's beak.*

* Interestingly (or probably not so interestingly to you), my little sister's name is also Pico, but in her case, the etymology stems from entirely known sources: I named her that when she was a baby and looked like a pea. Ko translates to "Kid" in Japanese. Pea-Ko = Peko = Pico = Pea Kid = my annoying little sister.

Also known as salsa fresca or salsa mexicana (because of its resemblance to the colors of the Mexican flag) at its most basic, it's made by combining chopped tomatoes, onions, and chilies. But our version is ever-so-slightly more optimized for better flavor and texture.


The real key here is to start with the best, most flavorful tomatoes you can find. Unless you're in the middle of tomato season and have some growing in or near your backyard, this generally means opting for smaller varieties, like plum, cherry, or grape tomatoes. (The smaller they are, the less likely they are to bruise themselves during transit, and thus the longer they are allowed to stay on the vine to ripen.)

The next key to optimal flavor is salt. I've talked about this trick before (such as in my Easy Greek Salad and Gazpacho recipes), but it bears repeating. By salting chopped watery vegetables (like tomatoes or cucumbers, say) and allowing them to sit in a strainer over a bowl, you end up drawing out excess juices via osmosis (the natural tendency of a liquid to move from an area of low solute density to high solute density). What remains is thus more compact and more flavorful.

You'll notice that after a good salting, your tomatoes will turn a brighter red than they were to begin with. This is a good sign that the concentration is working.

For onions, I use white onions, which have very little natural sulfurous aromas, instead contributing sweetness and crunch. For the chilies, I prefer serranos to jalapeños for their brighter heat, but either one will do. Remove the seeds and membranes if you want your pico slightly less hot.

Finally, I like to add a handful of chopped cilantro to mine, along with a quick squeeze of lime juice, though the latter can always be added with some sliced wedges at the table.

Serve this salsa with tacos, fajitas, burritos, chips, or any of the other Mexican and Tex-Mex recipes we have here.

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