How to Make Pico de Gallo | The Food Lab

Finished Pico de Gallo
J. Kenji López-Alt

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 that of 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 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're 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 post on gazpacho), 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 one of 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 in the way of natural sulfurous aromas and instead contribute 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 via some sliced wedges at the table. Try serving this salsa with tacos, fajitas, burritos, chips, or any of the other Mexican and Tex-Mex recipes we've got.

Follow along below for step-by-step instructions, or just skip straight to the recipe.

How to Make Pico de Gallo, Step by Step

Step 1: Assemble the Ingredients

Ripe tomatoes, a bunch of cilantro, a green pepper, a lime, and a white onion on a wooden cutting board

Start out with the best, ripest tomatoes you can find, which, unless it's the height of summer, generally means one of the smaller Roma, cherry, or plum varieties. I used Campari-brand plum tomatoes for this batch, along with white onion, serrano chilies, lime, and cilantro.

Step 2: Finely Dice Tomatoes

A hand holding a ripe tomato steady on a wooden cutting board while cutting it into fine dice

Finely dice your tomatoes by making parallel cuts along all three axes. Start by cutting them in half, then hold them cut side down and make one or two horizontal cuts. Next, make parallel vertical cuts. Finally, rotate 90° and make more vertical cuts to end up with fine dice.

Step 3: Salt!

A hand sprinkling salt over a pile of chopped tomatoes in a fine-mesh strainer

Season the tomatoes with salt, toss them in a fine-mesh strainer, and let them drain for about 20 minutes. This will concentrate their flavor and improve texture.

Step 4: Onions!

A hand holding a white onion steady on a wooden cutting board, while cutting it into fine dice

Dice your white onion finely. If it is particularly pungent, it can be rinsed under warm running water.

Step 5: Finely Dice Chilies

A green pepper being cut into thin strips on a wooden cutting board

To dice serrano or jalapeño chilies, first remove the end, slice in half, and cut into thin strips, removing the seeds and ribs if you'd like your pico de gallo less spicy.

Step 6: Rotate and Cut

A chef's knife cutting green pepper strips into fine dice on a wooden cutting board

Rotate the pepper strips 90° and cut them into fine, tiny dice.

Step 7: Combine and Season

A hand squeezing lime over a metal bowl of chopped tomatoes, white onion, pepper, and cilantro, with extra cilantro stems visible in the background

Toss all the vegetables together, along with some chopped cilantro, and season to taste with lime juice and more salt.

Finished!

Serve immediately, or refrigerate the pico in a sealed container for up to three days. Bear in mind that the onion aroma may get stronger after the first day in the refrigerator.