Salsa and chips -- the dynamic duo of snack foods. Whether you're watching sports, enjoying family movie night, or stocking up to binge a new season of a favorite show, this simple combo is the hero of the hungry. To find the best cheap salsa to pair with tortilla chips, we organized a panel of eight tasters for a blind test. Our volunteer panelists sampled 11 low-price name-brand and store-brand salsas purchased at Safeway, Walmart, Trader Joe's, and Whole Foods. While budget-priced salsa may lag high-end artisanal products in terms of nuance and ingredients, the best cheap salsa has near-universal appeal.
Cheap Salsa Taste Test 2016
With the move these days toward artisanal everything, there are salsas incorporating ghost peppers, mangoes and lime, pineapple and chipotle, and even cranberries spiked with habanero. Price tags hit $7 a jar without breaking a sweat, and additions such as black beans and corn -- once deemed "gourmet" -- have become decidedly passé. In a previous taste test, we branched out to salsa verde and various flavored salsas, but cheap salsa is valued for the very quality sacrificed in all this specialization: It's an easy crowd-pleaser. With that in mind, we got back to basics, limiting this year's selections to classic tomato salsa.
We shopped for a mix of reasonably priced national brands -- Tostitos, Pace, Herdez, Newman's Own, and On the Border -- as well as widely available store brands from Safeway, Walmart, and Trader Joe's. Most rang up at less than 19 cents an ounce, but we included a few organic options with higher prices alongside the conventional salsas -- and none finished among our top picks. The most expensive salsa in the sample was Simply Tostitos Organic Chunky Medium Salsa ($4.79 for a 15.5-ounce jar), which rang up at 31 cents an ounce. The cheapest competitor was Walmart's Great Value Restaurant-Style Medium Salsa ($2 for a 24-ounce bottle), at just 8 cents an ounce. Testers were presented the salsas in unmarked bowls and asked to comment on the flavor, consistency, and appearance of each sample. From there, they named their favorites and determined which cheap salsas weren't up to par -- or were downright unpalatable.
Unsurprisingly, personal taste played a big part in the results. Panel members didn't agree on which salsas were their favorites. Those who like a bit of heat had fewer good things to say about the milder salsas. Those with more sensitive palates generally disliked the salsas with stronger flavors, calling them "too salty" or "too spicy." In the end, the top picks won out by presenting a good balance of flavor and texture that appealed to chip dippers of all taste persuasions. They were neither too sweet nor too salty, and chunky but not too thick nor (heaven forbid) the consistency of tomato sauce. They delivered a flavor punch without too much spice.
Safeway's Signature Select Chunky Classic Medium Salsa ($2.99 for 24 ounces) received the best reviews, due to its "rich" mix of tomato, onion, and garlic flavors and a thick, consistent texture. Tostitos Chunky Salsa ($3 for 15.5 ounces) came in a close second, with its chunky yet "smooth-tasting" balance.
Walmart's house-brand Great Value Restaurant-Style Medium Salsa and Trader Joe's Chunky Salsa ($1.99 for 16 ounces) also earned good ratings, but each had minor deficiencies of texture or flavor proportion that kept them just shy of the top tier.
Two salsas were conspicuously disappointing. Herdez Salsa Casera Medium ($1.98 for 16 ounces) was overly diluted, and the tomatoes tasted more acidic than sweet. Newman's Own Medium Chunky Salsa ($2.54 for 16 ounces), another dud, was too homogenously blended and its seasoning too mild to generate interest.
There were some salsas -- including all the organic products -- that, while perfectly serviceable, didn't do much to stand out from the crowd: Pace Chunky Medium Salsa ($1.98 for 16 ounces), On the Border Medium Salsa ($2.24 for 15.5 ounces), 365 Everyday Value Organic Thick & Chunky Medium Salsa from Whole Foods ($2.99 for 16 ounces), O Organics Medium Chunky Salsa from Safeway ($3.29 for 16 ounces), and the expensive Simply Tostitos Organic Chunky Medium Salsa. A majority of tasters didn't consider these salsas terrible. Rather, they are dips to grab only when the store is running low on other options.
Appearance.Appearance went hand in hand with consistency in our salsa review, with participants preferring chunks of vegetables over salsas that resembled purées. If a salsa didn't look appetizing to our testers, it was unlikely to earn high ratings.The panel favored the easy-to-see mix of tomatoes, onions, and peppers in the two best salsas, Safeway's Signature Select Chunky Classic Medium Salsa and Tostitos Chunky Salsa. Both had a midsize dice that wasn't overly consistent, giving an impression of hand-chopped, rather than processed, ingredients. They were thick enough that a chip would stand up in the salsa, but a thin layer of tomato juice settled on top, keeping them from having a "saucy" look.
On the flip side, taste arbiters reacted poorly to salsas such as Newman's Own Medium Chunky Salsa, which maintained a uniform, crushed-tomato appearance. They dinged the well-blended salsa for having "a smooth texture" that "looks kind of thin" -- more like weak spaghetti sauce than salsa.
Two contenders in our past tasting session likewise flopped in large part because of their appearance and, in turn, their texture. While spice-loving snackers appreciated that Trader Joe's Salsa Autentica ($1.79 for 12 ounces) "had a good punch to it," more than one person opined that it "looks like ketchup." Riverwalk Cantina Salsa ($1.58 for 24 ounces) suffered from an appearance that was "way too tomato-y." Some even said it resembled baby food.
Consistency.Our volunteer panel preferred well-balanced salsas with texture and some thickness. They reacted best to "chunky" salsa offerings, such as Tostitos Chunky Salsa and Safeway's Signature Select Chunky Classic Medium Salsa. The toothsome pieces of vegetable abundant in these salsas give them nice composition and variety from bite to bite.While Great Value Restaurant-Style Medium Salsa attained the rank of good cheap salsa, an overly fine dice made it "mushy," bringing down its score. Similarly, Trader Joe's Chunky Salsa was more of a tomato purée, which some said gave it an unpleasant mouth feel.
A thin, monotonous, or unbalanced texture particularly hurt the lowest-ranking salsas on our list. Herdez Salsa Casera had nice bits of onion and tomato to recommend it, but the base was "watery" and acidic, with a runniness that made it "hard to scoop." Newman's Own Medium Chunky Salsa had the consistency of a "thick tomato paste" and "not enough substance."
Taste.Arguably the most important factor, taste generated the most incongruent assessments. A portion of the panel was drawn to salsas with tomato as the predominant flavor. These panelists favored some sweetness, and no jarring flavor notes. They tended to be put off by intense hits of spice and anything they considered overly peppery. Another part of the group was partial to salsas with more bite. These tasters homed in on options with some heat over those with a more balanced flavor. For them, tomato was an important component but shouldn't be the extent of the flavor profile.Those who prefer some zing enjoyed Trader Joe's Chunky Salsa, with its "spicy," "chili powder flavor," which made fans exclaim, "Yum." On the Border Medium Salsa charmed spice seekers with "smoky" "taco flavor" and notes of cumin, black pepper, and chipotle, although it didn't gain enough traction overall to earn a recommendation.
Past tasters who liked spicy flavors identified Kroger's Private Selection Authentic Restaurant-Style Medium Salsa ($3.89 for 24 ounces) as their favorite. They also liked Whole Foods' 365 Everyday Value Thick & Chunky Salsa ($2.69 for 16 ounces) for its "good vinegar balance" and "nice spice."
Panelists with more tender taste buds were drawn to traditional salsas such as the Signature Select and Tostitos salsas that topped our chart during this round of testing. The flavors of Walmart's Great Value Restaurant-Style Medium Salsa were well-received across the board, giving some the "strong tomato" base they craved and others some spice without too much "kick."
Despite the disparate tastes of our opinionated judges, most agreed about what they disliked. Although a couple people said the "hot," "oniony" Herdez salsa had some appeal, most couldn't get over the astringent flavor of its tomato-water base.
Natural/Organic Salsa.The "natural" and organic salsas we tested were often judged too sweet and "bland" by more adventurous eaters who preferred zestier flavor. Almost no one appreciated Newman's Own Medium Chunky Salsa. Besides its gloppy texture, it was handicapped by an uninteresting flavor profile. Whole Foods' 365 Everyday Value Organic Thick & Chunky Medium Salsa, O Organics Medium Chunky Salsa, and Simply Tostitos Organic Chunky Medium Salsa all suffered from "mushy" sweetness, disjointed flavors, and odd aftertastes that "didn't go away." As one taster put it, they "tasted natural." It wasn't meant as a compliment.
Mild Salsa.Our previous tasting focused on mild salsa. Walmart's Great Value Mild Chunky Salsa ($2 for 24 ounces) won a first-place berth by virtue of being the one salsa all panelists liked. They noted the taste was "decent" and "not too overpowering." The product won over past panelists with the visual appeal of "nice, large pieces of veggies" (in contrast to the Great Value Restaurant-Style Medium Salsa, with its over-fine texture, from this year's test). Likewise, Market Pantry Chunky Mild Salsa from Target ($1.97 for 24 ounces) was lauded for a "good mix of chunks" and a "slightly sweet," "very mild" flavor.Natural and organic salsas with a "sweeter taste," including Kroger's Simple Truth Organic Mild Salsa ($2.69 for 16 ounces) and Safeway's O Organics Mild Salsa ($3.29 for 16 ounces) received nods in the earlier test from panelists with milder palates. The Kroger brand was named best organic mild salsa.
Salsa Verde and Flavored Salsas.The flavor of salsa verde -- green by virtue of the included tomatillos -- generated a mixed bag of reviews from our previous panelists and were left out this time. Many testers enjoyed the "sweet but smoky" flavors and "interesting spice" while others were turned off by the "sour fruit taste," which some likened to "pickled cucumber." For consumers interested in this variety of salsa, a good balance of fruit and spice made Simple Truth Organic Tomatillo Medium Salsa ($2.69 for 16 ounces) the best salsa verde in our inaugural tasting. Trader Joe's Salsa Verde ($1.99 for 12 ounces) was disliked by nearly all the panelists due to its tartness and "lack of distinctive flavor."In general, the flavored salsas in the earlier tasting -- whether sweet, with additions such as mango and peach, or sour, with lime and garlic mixed in -- were poorly received. The only out-of-the-ordinary blend that received consistent compliments of any sort was Whole Foods' 365 Everyday Value Roasted Chipotle Salsa ($2.69 for 16 ounces). And the best our panelists could muster was appreciation for the salsa's "smoky" notes and "barbecue flavor."
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