Salsa – not just a dance

The best way to produce a salsa product is to follow a standardized recipe.

A salsa is much more than a saucy dance. When making salsa, the ingredients used include low acid food such as onions and peppers, mixed with an acid food such as tomato or fruit. Following a standardized recipe is the key to making a safe salsa product!  Michigan State University Extension recommends using only a standardized recipe to make this saucy mixed tomato-vegetable product.

Making salsa is a chemistry experiment because there is a very delicate pH balance that comes into play. The measurements must be exact. If there is too much low acid vegetable introduced, the delicate pH of below 4.6 is thrown off and the product will be susceptible to the growth of Clostridium Botulinum. The foodborne pathogen, Clostridium Botulinum is the deadly reason to follow a researched and standardized recipe for canning the product.

The ingredients involved in salsas are acid ingredients, peppers, spices and herbs. Acid ingredients include specific amounts of vinegar or lemon juice, tomatoes, tomatillos and fruit. The acid ingredients are necessary because the natural acid content of the mixture is not acid enough to safely can the salsa in a boiling water technique. Standardized commercial lemon or lime juice or vinegar with five percent acidity is required in standardized recipes. The amount of lemon juice or vinegar in a standardized recipe cannot be reduced! Bottled lemon juice can be substituted for vinegar in a recipe. But vinegar cannot be substituted for bottled lemon juice in a recipe. Substituting vinegar for bottled lemon juice would create a potentially unsafe canned salsa.

For tomatoes ideally use vine ripened, disease free tomatoes when canning salsa and other tomato products. Never use tomatoes from dead or frost-killed vines.

For fruit salsas use firm, ripe fruits. Blemishes on the fruits will lead to quality deterioration and a product that will spoil.

For tomatillos choose ones that are firm, bright dark green and have a dry papery husk. The dry husk needs to be removed. Wash the tomatillos. The tomatillos do not need to be peeled or seeded.

For the peppers use only disease free, unblemished firm peppers. One type of pepper can be substituted for another – for example, hot chilies can be substituted for bell peppers. Never increase the amount (cups or pounds) of peppers in a standardized recipe. Never substitute the same number of whole peppers such as bell pepper for jalapeños. This substitution will result in a product with unsafe acidity content.

Mild varieties of peppers include Anaheim, Ancho, bell or Hungarian yellow wax. Although jalapeños are a popular hot variety of peppers, others include Cayenne, Habanero and Serrano.

Herbs and spices add their own distinct flavor to salsas. When a recipe calls for a dried herb or spice such as black pepper, oregano, ground cumin or hot red pepper flakes, the amount may be altered or left completely out. If a stronger cilantro flavor is desired, it is best to add chopped fresh cilantro just before serving.

Red, yellow or white onions may be substituted for one another. Do not increase the total amount of onions called for in the recipe!

Do not use thickeners such as cornstarch, flour or other starches before canning the salsa. It is best to thicken a salsa just before serving.

Remember that salsa is more than a spicy dance! Spice up your next meal with a salsa using fresh, unblemished produce.

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