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The burning question 

Salsa—no other condiment conjures up images of a good time like salsa. A veritable party in your mouth, the perfect salsa is a marriage of tomatoes, chopped fresh cilantro and garlic, and jalapeno or Serrano peppers.

Fresh salsa is simple and easy to make, but most of us still head to the supermarket when we want some company for our nachos, fajitas, tacos, chicken or anything else that needs that extra special something.

There’s lots of selection at the market these days, and I wonder if my old favourite really is the best salsa available. Time to do some research, and put together a panel of adventurous tasters. Our mission: to find the one salsa that does justice to whatever it’s paired with, be it snack food or main course.

It’s hard to round up a wide range of salsas in the grocery store—it’s merchandised next to tortilla chips, in the organic section, in the sauce section, on end units. After roaming around a bit, I gather eight brands ranging from extra mild to hot, from no-name to big names, and an organic version.

We’re going to base our tests on taste, texture and scoopability, using nachos. First, a look at the ingredients. Most commercial salsas do not contain added preservatives or colouring, because of the acidic nature of the tomatoes. Though some salsas are labelled “fat-free,” this is just marketing—all of these tomato-based salsas are fat-free. Most of the eight salsas contain the same basic stuff, starting with tomatoes. Sometimes tomato puree is added to thicken it up, sometimes vinegar for added acidic value. Garlic, onion, and hot peppers are present, sometimes fresh, sometimes powdered or dehydrated.

After tasting, scooping, smelling and chip-dipping, our taste buds are burning and we’re ready to assemble our findings.

The No-Name medium is the cheapest ($1.99/430ml) and it shows. Tomato puree is the main ingredient, resulting in a smooth, runny salsa that leaves chips soggy. For a medium, this one has no heat at all, actually tasting blander than our extra mild. Almost as bad was the Humpty Dumpty mild ($2.99/430ml); in a blind test we couldn’t tell these two apart.

The Neal Brothers Organic hot ($3.99/ 500ml) is the most expensive and has apple cider vinegar as the extra acid. So much apple cider vinegar that it is unpleasant after a few bites; the strong odour of the vinegar is a turn off as well. Spread on a taco, it still overwhelms all the other flavours.

President’s Choice Extra Chunky extra mild ($2.79/650ml) also has apple cider vinegar listed, but far less—tasters can’t detect the vinegar at all. Unfortunately, we can’t detect much of anything at all.

On to a mild version of my long-time favourite, Pace Extra Chunky ($3.79/642ml), which doesn’t fare that well stacked against some others, to my chagrin. It’s an average, inoffensive salsa with a nice texture and flavour, but it doesn’t really announce itself the way a great salsa should. Also in that category of “good, but average” falls the Tostitos medium ($2.99/430ml).

The first runner up turns out to be Old El Paso Thick and Chunky hot ($3.49/650ml); this zesty salsa lives up to its thick and chunky moniker, and has heat to boot. And the winner, everyone’s favourite, is a bit of an underdog. The little known Herdez Homemade Style hot, found in the “Mexican” food section, is miles ahead in flavour.

The ingredient list is the simplest, with only half a dozen ingredients, and we all agree it tastes the “freshest.” Big chunks of tomato and onion are easy to scoop, and small bits of Serrano pepper make it sing. So for real salsa lovers, if you can’t make your own, Herdez is worth trying.

Get a spicy double dip of Liz Feltham online at: www.foodcritic.ca

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