The salsa national championships.

How to be the best consumer you can be.
March 15 2005 6:02 PM

The Tangy 12

The salsa national championships.

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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?

Dan Kois Dan Kois

Dan Kois is Slate's culture editor, co-host of Mom and Dad Are Fighting, and a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine.

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.

Methodology
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 here for our unscientific ranking of chip quality.) Double-dipping was allowed, even encouraged.

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.

6_050314_salsabracket_small
Click chart to enlarge

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

Mrs. Renfro's Habanero Salsa Hot
Heat Index: 8.11
Average Salsa Score: 4.22 (out of 10)
Bonus Points: 0.75
Total Score: 4.97

No. 3 seed D.L. Jardine's Peach Salsa Medium (16 oz., $3.99)
vs.
No. 6 seed
Trader José's Salsa Auténtica (12 oz., $1.59)
A huge upset: Lowest seed Trader José's delivered a whopping blow to D.L. Jardine. Though no one could identify the peaches in Jardine's syrupy solution, most noted an off-putting sweetness. "Is this a dessert salsa?" asked one. I thought it tasted surprisingly like Secret Stadium Sauce, a condiment rumored to be a mixture of ketchup and Coca-Cola syrup that's slathered on bratwurst at Milwaukee Brewers games. Most agreed "it's a stretch to call this 'salsa,' but it might make a good barbecue sauce." Meanwhile, thin-salsa aficionados carried "Trader José" into the second round on the strength of its flavor and "simple" authenticity. It was clear the chunk-lovers would prevent José from further advancement, though. "This is salad dressing, right?" wrote one. Another found the salsa "so thin it might as well be enchilada sauce."

D. L. Jardine's Peach Salsa Medium
Heat Index: 1.44
Average Salsa Score: 2.44
Bonus Points: 0.25
Total Score: 2.69

Trader José's Salsa Auténtica
Heat Index: 3.44
Average Salsa Score: 3.67
Bonus Points: 0.75
Total Score: 4.42

ROUND 2
No. 1 seed
Stonewall Kitchen Spicy Tomato Salsa (16 oz., $6.59)
vs.
No. 5 seed Mrs. Renfro's Habanero Salsa Hot
Despite its coveted first-round bye—due to its extravagant price—New Hampshire-based gourmet stalwart Stonewall Kitchen was the victim of a stunning second-round upset. A third of the testers found Stonewall's salsa to be overwhelmed by vinegar. One participant dissented, praising the salsa for quasi-homemade flavor: "It actually tastes like it has ingredients!" But Mrs. Renfro's heat easily defeated Stonewall's so-called spiciness.

Stonewall Kitchen Spicy Tomato Salsa
Heat Index: 3.22
Average Salsa Score: 3.33
Bonus Points: 0.25
Total Score: 3.58

Mrs. Renfro's Habanero Salsa Hot
Heat Index: 8.11
Average Salsa Score: 4.22
Bonus Points: 0.75
Total Score: 4.97

No. 2 seed Desert Pepper Trading Company Corn, Black Bean, Roasted Red Pepper Salsa Medium (16 oz., $4.59)
vs.
No. 6 seed Trader José's Auténtica
A fresh, flavorful Desert Pepper Trading Company made quick work of Trader José. Though a vocal minority found Desert Pepper's mélange of black beans, corn, and other southwestern-style salsa accoutrements "kind of gross-looking," most appreciated its appearance and its "smoky," "yummy," "complex" flavor redolent of cumin and corn. All awarded points for ambition, as Desert Pepper's unique recipe distinguished itself from the other muddy-red messes.

Desert Pepper Trading Company Corn, Black Bean, Roasted Red Pepper Salsa Medium
Heat Index: 2.67
Average Salsa Score: 6.33
Bonus Points: 2.00
Total Score: 8.33

Trader José's Salsa Auténtica
Heat Index: 3.44
Average Salsa Score: 3.67
Bonus Points: 0.75
Total Score: 4.42

Safeway Regional
ROUND 1
No. 4 seed
Chi-Chi's Fiesta Salsa Medium (16 oz., $2.99)
vs.
No. 5 seed
Pace Chunky Salsa Medium (16 oz., $2.89)
Pace prevailed in this battle of second-rate salsas. Chi-Chi's was damned with faint praise, as tasters proclaimed it "not awful" and "not boring as hell." It had at least one fan, though, who exclaimed "Dude! I taste a couple of different things!" We picked out hints of green pepper, black pepper, caramelized onion, and cinnamon.

Pace, on the other hand, tasted "synthetic but palatable." Though this group of New York City slickers found this "medium" salsa mild, most declared it a fine default salsa—"pleasant but unsurprising." A vocal minority found the salsa's uniform flavor a bit … weird. "Rotten," complained one; it tastes "like weeds," said another. Nonetheless, Pace advanced; Chi-Chi's went home.

Chi-Chi's Fiesta Salsa Medium
Heat Index: 2.33
Average Salsa Score: 3.78
Bonus Points: 0.50
Total Score: 4.28

Pace Chunky Salsa Medium
Heat Index: 2.00
Average Salsa Score: 3.67
Bonus Points: 1.00
Total Score: 4.67No. 3 seed Ortega Homestyle Recipe Salsa Mild (16 oz., $2.99)
vs.
No. 6 seed
Tostitos All Natural Salsa Mild (16 oz., $2.89)
A match so close it called for double-dipping overtime. Ortega emerged victorious. Tasters dubbed Tostitos "lousy" and "sweet, mild and boring, like Matt Lauer." Though one dissenter named the salsa his third-place pick, calling it "fruity and tasty," the rest found it unpalatable. Ortega's M.O.? Offend no one. Its bland flavor kept it from excelling beyond a sea of mediocrity, but nobody hated it. "Chef Boy-o-Salsa," said one. Its lack of pizzazz left one taster remarking, "You could feed this to a baby, and the baby would look at you and be like, 'Really? I could handle more.' "

Ortega Homestyle Recipe Salsa Mild
Heat Index: 1.67
Average Salsa Score: 3.44
Bonus Points: 0.25
Total Score: 3.69

Tostitos All Natural Salsa Mild
Heat Index: 2.11
Average Salsa Score: 3.33
Bonus Points: 0.25
Total Score: 3.58

ROUND 2
No. 1 seed
Newman's Own All Natural Chunky Salsa Medium (16 oz., $2.99)
vs.
No. 5 seed Pace Chunky Salsa Medium
It isn't just Luke's hand that's cool: Newman's salsa failed to live up to its "Medium" billing, scoring just 1.56 on the Heat Index. Though one tester insisted this was his overall favorite—"You can actually taste some caramelization from the onions"—he was quickly trash-talked into submission by those dismissing it as "bland" and "inedible." The salsa was so poorly received, in fact, that many hesitated to call it "Mexican," comparing it instead to Scottish cuisine—"the haggis of salsa." This match-up was an easy win for Pace; in fact, Blue Eyes' salsa came in dead last overall.

Newman's Own All Natural Pace Chunky Salsa Medium
Heat Index: 1.56
Average Salsa Score: 2.11
Bonus points: 0.25

Pace Chunky Salsa Medium
Heat Index: 2.00
Average Salsa Score: 3.67
Bonus Points: 1.00
Total Score: 4.67

No. 2 seed Old El Paso Thick n' Chunky Salsa Wild for Mild (16 oz., $2.99)
vs.
No. 3 seed Ortega Homestyle Recipe Salsa Mild
Once again, Ortega advanced, not on its own merits but due to its opponent's inferiority. A few tasters found Old El Paso "the best of the generics," noting its "good chunky tomato bits," but most of us weren't wild for mild. "Fake sweet. Cheerleadery," wrote one. "Gross," "blah," and "yucky," said others.

Old El Paso Thick n' Chunky Salsa Wild for Mild
Heat Index: 1.89
Average Salsa Score: 3.00
Bonus Points: 0.50
Total Score: 3.50

Ortega Homestyle Recipe Salsa Mild
Heat Index: 1.67
Average Salsa Score: 3.44
Bonus Points: 0.25
Total Score: 3.69

Los Cuatro Finales
SEMIFINALS
Mrs. Renfro's Habanero Salsa Hot
vs.
Desert Pepper Trading Company Corn, Black Bean, Roasted Red Pepper Salsa Medium
Like Maryland vs. Kansas in 2002, the real competition commenced during the semifinals. In the Dean & DeLuca Regional crown face-off, two-thirds of us voted Desert Pepper Trading Company our overall favorite. By the end, many felt betrayed by Mrs. Renfro's spice. As one taster put it, "It's a little punk-ass salsa. It's not that hot at the outset, but then it sneaks up and stabs you in the back." Desert Pepper advanced to the foregone conclusion of a final, 8.33 to 4.97.

Pace Chunky Salsa Medium
vs.
Ortega Homestyle Recipe Salsa Mild
Get a rope! Pace finally knocked "Poor-tega" out of the tournament. For a low-end jarred salsa, Pace held its own; four testers ranked it their third-favorite of all. Pace advanced, 4.67 to 3.69, to serve as cannon fodder for Desert Pepper in the finals.

The 2005 Salsa Championship
Desert Pepper Trading Company Corn, Black Bean, Roasted Red Pepper Salsa Medium
vs.
Pace Chunky Salsa Medium
A dull match, indeed. It's hard to say why Desert Pepper triumphed. In a sea of red slop, was Desert Pepper's unique look and taste simply a respite from the ordinary? Or was it worthy of the title? The telltale sign: At the end of the night, Bowl L, aka Desert Pepper, was the only empty bowl on the table.

Conclusion
Our testing revealed two important facts about mass-produced salsa. First, trust no labels. Despite a roster that included six "mediums," two "hots," and one "spicy," only one of 12 salsas—Mrs. Renfro's Habanero— packed serious heat, rating 8.11 on our scientific Heat Index. (Click here to see a ranking of salsas from mildest to hottest.)

Second, salsa is infinitely more enjoyable when accompanied by a pastime. The act of concentrating on salsa-laden chip after salsa-laden chip—as opposed to absently munching, distracted by the irritating honk of Dick Vitale—turned what I thought would be an enjoyable exercise into a torturous ordeal. My visiting team agreed; an hour into the taste test, most punctuated their evaluations with moans and threats of regurgitation. I still can't get too close to salsa without the odors triggering a painful burning within my stomach. Desert Pepper Trading Company may enjoy its victory, but we brave souls who witnessed its triumph may never enjoy salsa again.

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