The Tangy 12
The salsa national championships.
I blame March Madness for a range of unusual behavior that I exhibit this time of year, from sudden mood swings to an irrational obsession with RPI. I also become a salsa fiend, and like many NCAA enthusiasts, most salsa I consume comes straight from a jar. Who has time to chop up a pile of vegetables when one must focus with laserlike intensity on rooting for a North Carolina championship?
The problem, of course, is mass-produced salsa's astounding lack of flavor, due largely to the abuse that vegetables endure to get from field to jar. The tomatoes, for example, are washed, blasted with hot steam, sliced, diced, reheated, and cooled. They're then mixed with dehydrated onions, flash-frozen jalapeño peppers, and other similarly maltreated vegetables. That mixture is heated, jarred, steamed, sealed, and finally, cooled. While homemade salsa marries the pure flavors of ingredients like peppers, cilantro, tomatoes, onions, and lime, mass-produced salsa is uniform, generic, and bland.
The jalapeños contribute significantly to jarred salsa's vapid flavor; they're specially bred to be 10 times milder than virginal chili peppers. Chili pepper heat is measured on the Scoville scale, a spice index developed by John Scoville, an early 20th-century chemist. While fresh jalapeños measure about 3,000 on the Scoville scale, "mild" salsas measure between 25 and 50, and "hot" salsas measure about 250. Rather than increase spice by adding natural chili peppers, salsa companies add minute doses of an ingredient called capsaicin, which amplifies the heat but offers no gustatory benefit.
Armed with this knowledge of jarred salsa's origins, my wife and I embarked on a search for that ever-elusive zestiness in a jar. We invited over seven friends, salsa lovers all, to join us in a 12-salsa tournament challenge.
I marked 12 bowls with the letters A through L and filled each with a salsa. Tasters were offered several brands of plain tortilla chips. No tasty flavored chips were allowed, to ensure results were based on salsa alone. (Click
Testers gave each salsa an overall "Salsa Score" on a scale of 1 (inedible) to 10 (delightfully zesty), assessing flavor, texture, and enjoyability—independent of a tester's heat preference. At the end of the tasting, I averaged each product's score and awarded a quarter-point bonus for each time a salsa was named one of a tester's three favorites. Testers also rated each salsa's heat index on a scale of 1 (water) to 10 (¡lengua en fuego!).
The 12 salsas were split into two regionals: the Dean & DeLuca Regional, for gourmet salsas, and the Safeway Regional, for standard salsas. Salsas were seeded according to price and class; hence, in the Safeway Regional, Newman's Own—pricier than most, with several Oscars to its name—was seeded No.1, while lowly Tostitos salsa was seeded No. 6.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Renfro's was the salsa your friends warn you about. "Look out for Salsa E!" tasters announced, steam whistling from their ears. This "dusky," "brittle" "scorcher" brought out the spicy adjectives in droves. Though I, like several tasters, found the salsa too hot—habanero peppers, the titular ingredient in Mrs. Renfro's, average 250,000 Scoville units—we all appreciated the aptly labeled spice.
Emeril's Original Recipe Medium Salsa
Heat Index: 2.56
Average Salsa Score: 2.56 (out of 10)
Bonus Points: 0.00
Total Score: 2.56
Dan Kois is a senior editor at Slate and a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine.