Few of us want to work for our convenience foods—that's why we call them convenience foods. This is precisely why jarred salsa exists. But there is a middle ground between a totally-from-scratch dip and one that comes off the supermarket shelf, and it's worth exploring. With just an additional fresh ingredient or two, store-bought salsas can go from stale to vibrant, taking on entirely new dimensions of character and flavor, with hardly any time and effort required on your part.
These tricks are especially helpful if you plan on putting out an array of salsas at your next get-together, whether it's a Cinco de Mayo party or a weekly taco night. Instead of making multiple recipes from scratch, you can just do one or two simple things to improve each store-bought salsa, and make them taste a lot more homemade.
The one thing that's important to point out: It's not possible to provide actual recipes here. There's simply too much variation from one jar of salsa to the next to specify how much of any given ingredient you should put into it. Some are too sour to tolerate extra acidity; others are too hot to warrant an additional chili pepper. You're going to have to trust your taste, and adjust as you go. And remember, once you start adding new ingredients, you may need to adjust seasonings like salt and acid (in the form of citrus juice or vinegar) to compensate.
Upgrade #1: Add Fresh Flavor
Good for: tomato-based salsas, pico de gallo, green (tomatillo-based) salsas, fruit salsas
Examples: minced fresh cilantro, fresh lime juice, diced plum tomato, diced cucumber, diced radish, diced onion
One of the problems with store-bought salsas—especially ones that are made in the style of fresh salsas, like salsa verde and pico de gallo—is that the high-heat canning process kills those fresh flavors. Whatever vitality they had before they went into the jar doesn't come out so great on the other side.
Obviously, if you're buying a jar of salsa in the first place, you're not in the mood to dice up all the fresh ingredients that would go into it. But consider adding just one or two—not much of a chore. At the very least, a little fresh lime juice and some minced cilantro can wake up even the sleepiest of salsas, ushering back in the flavor of just-squeezed citrus and herbs that taste like they came from a living plant.
Beyond that, a crunchy raw vegetable or two never hurts. Post-canning, most of the chunks in a chunky salsa tend to be more pulpy than anything else, so an ingredient that adds some crispness back to the mix will do a lot to improve a product that's sat on a supermarket shelf for months. I like diced cucumber, radish, and onion in particular, but anything with some bite can work. A bit of juicy fresh plum tomato is another good choice.
Upgrade #2: Redo the Roast
Good for: green (tomatillo-based) salsas, dried-chili salsas, bean-based salsas, tomato-based salsas
Examples: charred corn kernels; charred Poblano, bell, and chili peppers; roasted fruit
Heartier salsas often contain roasted ingredients, whether it's charred corn in a black-bean dip or blistered peppers in a chili- or tomatillo-based sauce. But by the time the jar makes it into your hands, those ingredients have often lost whatever deeply roasted flavor they once had. In one of the jarred salsas I experimented with for this post, I could see the nubbins of charred corn in each bite, but I couldn't taste them.
Instead of building one of those salsas from scratch, you can roast just a single ingredient and stir it into the jarred product to enhance what's already there. It takes very little effort to toss some corn kernels into a singeing-hot oiled pan for a few minutes before adding those sweet and smoky bits to the sauce.
Or, try holding a single Poblano, bell, serrano, or jalapeño pepper over a gas flame (or throwing it under the broiler) until the skin blackens and flakes. Then put it in a bowl, cover with plastic, and let the pepper steam for a few minutes. After that, the skin should just rub off, and you can dice up the flesh and add it to your salsa. You'll get a much deeper roasted flavor that way.
Upgrade #3: Raid the Spice Cabinet
Good for: dried-chili salsas, tomato-based salsas, bean-based salsas, fruit salsas
Examples: cumin, cinnamon, coriander seed, dried oregano
Ground dried spices can work wonders on mass-market salsas, introducing layers of complexity that the product developers probably never dreamed of. Cumin is an absolute natural, and works in just about any type of salsa you can imagine, from fresher, tomatoey dips to dark, brooding dried-chili ones. Sweet, warm spices like cinnamon can be surprisingly great in these, too. And dried herbs, especially Mexican oregano (or regular oregano, if you don't have the Mexican kind), can add a welcome, subtle woodsy fragrance.
The key in all instances is to start by adding small pinches, then tweak from there, since you don't want your salsa to end up tasting like a curry.
Upgrade #4: Get Nutty
Good for: dried-chili salsas, bean-based salsas
Examples: peanut butter, sesame seed paste (tahini), pepitas (ground into a paste), cashew butter
There's a whole world of nut-based salsas in Mexican cuisine, but it's pretty rare to find them in stores. No problemo! Just stir your own nut or seed butter into one of the heartier store-bought options, like a dark dried-chili salsa or a thick, bean-y one. You may have to stir in a little water as well if the nut butter is too thick, and you may also find that the richness of the nuts will require balancing out with an extra splash of lime juice or cider vinegar. Just go by your tastes to home in on the perfect flavor.
Keep in mind, too, that this approach definitely calls for natural nut butters, rather than the sweetened kinds. Save the latter for your PB&Js.
Upgrade #5: Bust Out the Brine
Good for: tomato-based salsas, green (tomatillo-based) salsas
Examples: minced capers, minced pitted green olives
In Veracruz, it's common to stir brined capers and minced olives into tomato salsa, and there's nothing stopping you from doing that to a commercial product, too. The result is a bright and briny salsa that's great on tortilla chips, but also plays really well with fish. You can even combine these salty add-ins with some subtle spices (like cumin and cinnamon) to play up more of an Iberian influence.
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