Salsa Roja — Salsas de Chile Ancho y Chile Guajillo, and a Question of Color

Salsa Roja is a classic Mexican salsa. Spooned over enchiladas, eggs, tacos — over anything where you want to see a blaze of color — it adds a rich, complex flavor of chile. The upper left salsa is made with chile ancho, the lower right with chile guajillo, both dried chiles. In Mexico, the smallest mom and pop grocery stores to the largest supermercados carry these two common chiles, as well as many others. North of the border, you can find them on the Mexican aisle in grocery stores.

Once you taste these salsas, and if you have an imaginative palate, maybe you will taste the flavors described in Mark Miller’s The Great Chile Book (Ten Speed Press), which describes ancho, the dried form of the fresh, green poblano chile, as having qualities of “a mild fruit flavor with tones of coffee, licorice, tobacco, dried plum and raisin, with a little woodsiness.” Guajillo is described as tasting of “green tea and stemmy flavor with berry tones. A little piney and tannic …”.

I can’t say I taste each of these flavors. I can say their unique complexity of flavors makes anything they accompany much better and richer.

Salsas made from dried chiles are so easy, I can see why Mexican housewives whip these together in a matter of minutes, sometimes for every meal.  I have read that salsa in Mexico is compared to the use of ketchup north of the border. If I were Mexican, I would take umbrage at this comparison. There is no comparison.

Upper right, ancho chiles; lower left, guajillo chiles

When we visited our friends Capi and Cuka in the mountains near Mascota, I watched Cuka make salsa for a lunch of Gringa Tacos. I took notes, but I knew better than to ask her for measurements. She would have looked incredulous and shrugged her shoulders. These two salsas are made as she made them. The measurements are mine, but feel free to vary the amounts to suit your own taste.

About the question of color. Those of you with wide screens will see a band of reddish color on either side of this page. What color to select, if any, has caused me no end of angst. I’m lousy at selecting paint colors for our house. Selecting this color for Cooking in Mexico was no easier for me. I settled on a color that came close to the color of dried chiles and the color of our handmade terracotta floor tiles. But you, the reader, have never before read why I picked this color, and by itself, without that association, some of you may wonder if I was out of my mind by selecting what I call “Terracotta.” Was I? What do you think? Please tell me. Please tell me if your screen is even wide enough to see a color on the side. I may be getting worked up over nothing. If you can see it, is it OK? Does it compliment the food photos or detract? Is it enticing, or would a new reader take one look at it and be chased away? Would you rather see another color? Or no color? I await your comments and answers.

Meantime, here is this easy, classic, wonderful chile salsa recipe that I like to call Terracotta Salsa. Use whichever dried chile you find. Other dried chiles will make great salsas, as well. Avoid dried chipotle unless you like true fire.

Salsa de Chile Ancho or de Chile Guajillo

  • 4-8 dried chiles (depending on size of chiles), ancho or guajillo
  • Large pinch of salt
  • 1 garlic clove, peeled and roughly chopped
  • about 1/4 small onion, roughly chopped
  • 1 small tomato or a few tomatillos, chopped
  • 1/4 teaspoon Mexican oregano
  • 1/2 cup (120 ml.) to 1 cup (240 ml.) hot water

Wipe chiles clean. Briefly toast in an unoiled, heavy skillet over medium-low heat about 30 seconds per side, being careful not to scorch. If they scorch, throw them out and start again, as they will take on an unpleasant, bitter flavor. When cool enough to handle, remove stem, stringy veins and some or most of the seeds. If you like your salsa on the hot side, leave seeds in.

Put chiles and other ingredients, except water, in a blender and process until everything is roughly chopped. Don’t worry if there are still large pieces of chile. Add 1/2 cup of hot water and process until smooth, adding more water if necessary for a spoonable consistency. The salsa should not be so smooth that there are no pieces of chile. This salsa benefits from texture.

Heat skillet with about a tablespoon of mild vegetable oil — I used avocado oil. Add salsa to skillet when oil is hot. It should spit and bubble. Stand back and stir to calm the salsa. Simmer for about three minutes. Adjust salt to taste. May be refrigerated for a few days.

Russ took one look at the salsas and added both to his Cuban Longaniza sausage on a bolillo. More on this wonderful sausage from Carnes del Mundo in the near future.

The salsa colors are brilliant. I’m not so sure about the page color on the sides. I look forward to your verdict.

Postscript: In September I changed to a different layout, one that does not offer background colors, so this question of color became a moot point. Thank you to everyone who offered their opinion. I hope you enjoy the new blog design.

Notes:

When selecting dried chiles, look for those that have a bright color, are still somewhat flexible and have a good aroma. Discard any with insect damage.

Chile ancho is also known as chile tener in the Mexican states of Nayarit and Jalisco. This name was given to me when I participated in making tamales in Nayarit.

In From My Mexican Kitchen, Diana Kennedy includes a recipe for salsa de chile costeño, the ingredients of which are only chiles, garlic, salt and water. She describes this salsa as having an acquired taste, but being a favorite of hers. Her recipe shows how simple it is to make any salsa with dried chiles: a slight toasting, then processed in a blender, adding enough water for consistency, and salt to taste. Onion, tomatoes, tomatillos, and oregano are optional.

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  1. #1 by Native American Jewelry Tips on August 21, 2010 - 5:00 pm

    The color bars appear on my screen on both sides and are PERFECT !
    I’m going to visit the “Cuarto de Chiles” (“Chile Room”) at my favorite bodega in the Fort very soon. I can’t wait to try some new varieties.
    Would you clear up something for me? Since ancho means wide in Spanish, I had heard that many (of the wider) chiles are called anchos, kind of as a group, yet it seems here in your post that a particular chile is called ancho. Maybe you know of this confusion and you or the book that you mention puts a fine point on this distinction?
    Gracias !!

    • #2 by francisco fernandez on December 21, 2011 - 3:26 pm

      Chiles anchos are the dryed “Poblano” chiles. These are big, almost as wide as long, and that is why the dry version is called “anchos”. They are possibly the most acknowledged chiles in Mexico, with an exception: The Yucatan Peninsula, where the “habanero” chile is widely used (as a matter of fact, “habanero is now a “denominacion de origen” granted to several states on the Yucatan Peninsula ). Chiles anchos are mild, of a very characteristic flavor, and can be used to prepare a large variety of “salsas” (sauces). Try them.

  2. #3 by Native American Jewelry Tips on August 21, 2010 - 5:07 pm

    PS I should have said that here, mostly ancho refers to a dried poblano chile which doesn’t seem any hotter than a bell pepper. But I’ve tasted “ancho chiles” that were quite warm, so…………seems like it is a generic term? Or is an acho a dried poblano down your way too?

    • #4 by Cooking in Mexico on August 21, 2010 - 7:34 pm

      Only dried poblano chiles are called chile ancho in Mexico, referring to their wide “shoulders” at the stem end. Poblano chiles can very wildly in their heat level, though they are generally mild. Much of the heat is concentrated in the seeds, so if you tasted a chile with the seeds still in it, it could be hotter.

      In From My Mexican Kitchen Diana Kennedy states that “although they (anchos) have the reputation of being mild, they can surprise you and be very hot, depending on where they are grown, the soil, and the heat, and if irrigated or grown during the rainy season.”

      Thanks for your “perfect” comment on the color. It makes me feel better about this choice.

  3. #5 by darlene on August 22, 2010 - 6:21 am

    Hi Kathleen,
    First off, your color selection is perfect. It pops your photography off the page and works well with the white background sheet of the blog. Secondly, can’t wait to try
    this recipe. Without the seeds! We went out for Mexican food yesterday and the salsa was too hot. To me it should compliment the food not, scorch my taste buds.
    Love your blog!
    Darlene

    • #6 by Cooking in Mexico on August 22, 2010 - 8:56 am

      Thanks for letting me know about the color. Only two responses so far, but both positive, so maybe I can stop worrying about the selection.

      I remember you liked the green salsa, and I know you will like this one, too. In your part of the country, these chiles will be easily available. There are so many flavors in a salsa, beside heat. When the salsa is too hot, it can cover up other flavors. I tend to make my salsas thicker than how they are made in Mexico, and milder. That way, we can eat a lot, enjoying the subtleties.

  4. #7 by Oaxaca Cultural Navigator on August 22, 2010 - 10:15 am

    Me, too, piping in! The color is the one I chose for my backsplash in North Carolina. What could be better? Nada. Goes with all the good food you prepare.

    • #8 by Cooking in Mexico on August 22, 2010 - 11:40 am

      Thanks, Norma, for giving me your thoughts on this. I’m really starting to feel better about the color.

  5. #9 by linda on August 22, 2010 - 11:20 am

    Your color is good! Very warm and appropriate. This salsa recipe looks quite user friendly and I intend to give it a try. I use dried red chiles here in New Mexico, but a slightly different process. Thanks for posting this muy authentic version.

    • #10 by Cooking in Mexico on August 22, 2010 - 11:43 am

      Thanks for letting me know. Judging by the comments that have come in so far, I was worrying unnecessarily about this. I’ll focus on food, and let the color stay. I hope you try this recipe. Easy, good and authentic.

  6. #11 by foodieinberlin on August 23, 2010 - 3:59 am

    Nice colours – and the step by step photos are very helpful!

  7. #13 by Cranefixer on August 23, 2010 - 6:47 am

    I never think of Salsa without having the entire vegetable drawer in it.
    I want to try this as a rub on some Carne Asada (being carefull when opening BBQ to not burn my eyes out). I very rarely use dried chiles and have found new confidence in experimenting with flavors of dried chiles.

    • #14 by Cooking in Mexico on August 23, 2010 - 12:22 pm

      Salsas made with dried chiles have a more concentrated flavor than those made with fresh. And each chile variety has its own taste. Salsa would be great rubbed into carne asada.

      • #15 by Lorin Johnson on August 23, 2010 - 4:04 pm

        Another variation is what kind of peppers they were grown in close proximity to as they tend to cross.
        The only color I see is on the top and bottom of the blog and I like it. I just have a standard computer screen here at the office.
        I’ll have to pick up some dried chiles as it’s been way too long since I played with them.

        • #16 by Cooking in Mexico on August 23, 2010 - 4:08 pm

          You are absolutely right, Lorin. Years ago we grew jalapeños next to bell peppers. The bells were so hot, we could hardly eat them. Another “yay” for the color. Great! Thanks.

  8. #17 by Crepes of Wrath on August 23, 2010 - 1:40 pm

    Beautiful step-by-step photos! Your salsa is a beautiful color – I need to go get some tortilla chips!

    • #18 by Cooking in Mexico on August 23, 2010 - 2:03 pm

      Thank you. I need to use up the left-over salsa today, and think I’ll cook a piece of lamb with it. It’s so tasty, we want to put it on everything.

  9. #19 by Vicki in GA on August 27, 2010 - 11:09 pm

    Very nice post.

  10. #20 by Popurri de la Vida on September 16, 2010 - 2:08 pm

    I was looking for a guajillo salsa in the internet and I found yours . I am going to try this recipe tonight to celebrate “El Grito de Independencia”. I am also making “carnitas” for the first time…let’s see how everything ends up. I am from South America but I love authentic Mexican food. I also have a food blog (Popurri de la Vida) in Spanish with English translation and I am sure I will post a link to this recipe. Thanks!!!!
    P.S. Great pictures!!!
    ❀ Saludos desde Austin

    • #21 by Cooking in Mexico on September 16, 2010 - 2:19 pm

      It was very good to hear from you. Thank you for visiting Cooking in Mexico and thank you for your kind words. I’m sure you will like the salsa when you make it. I can eat it every day. Do you live in Austin? I lived there for almost ten years when I was younger.
      Please let me know what you think of the salsa.

  11. #22 by Sean Zeigler on October 2, 2010 - 5:10 pm

    Native New Mexican now living in N. Carolina–I loved it. It turned out great and reminded me of home!

    • #23 by Cooking in Mexico on October 2, 2010 - 5:17 pm

      I’m very glad you tried the salsa roja.
      We spent a number of years in the Santa Fe area — I return every year for visits and a good helping of New Mexico green chile.

  12. #24 by Iris Garza on May 4, 2011 - 12:20 pm

    Congratulations on your blog!!!!! Great pics and ideas …Thanks!!!!

  13. #25 by Laura Lopez on July 27, 2011 - 7:17 am

    Hi Kathleen,

    I was so excited to see your Blog!! How do you go about visiting there in Mexico? My husband and I are planning a trip in the spring. Do you have any suggestions on tourism. I do not want the usual bed and breakfast stay. We would like something comfortable not fancy. Any suggestions?
    Love the colors and the recipes!

    • #26 by Cooking in Mexico on July 27, 2011 - 9:15 am

      Hi Laura,

      I suggest you visit a bookstore or library and get a couple of books on Mexico, maybe the Lonely Planet Mexico Guide.
      They will steer you to interesting places, economical hotels and restaurants, and even provide a few itineraries. There are big cities, like Guadalajara — really interesting with lots of history and events, and then there are small towns for a more laid-back vacation. You will have a great time!

  14. #27 by Birgit Nazarian on June 6, 2012 - 1:41 pm

    I found this while looking for a chile guajillo recipe since I got a big bag of dried guajillos! Beautiful post! I will try your recipe. :-)

    • #28 by Cooking in Mexico on June 6, 2012 - 2:49 pm

      Hi Birgit, guajillo chiles make such a beautifully colored salsa, and tasty too. I hope you like it.

      • #29 by Birgit Nazarian on June 6, 2012 - 3:18 pm

        Just finished it! Well, I am a rookie and I think it tastes good, but I need to calm down next time I toast the guajillos, I think I was so afraid they would burn, maybe I didn’t toast them enough. But it’s gorgeous! I made frijoles de la olla today, chayote con elote and I think that salsa would be so good with grilled pork!

        • #30 by Cooking in Mexico on June 6, 2012 - 3:34 pm

          It doesn’t take long to toast them — better to under-toast then over-toast, because then they can have a bitter flavor. Your menu sounds great — wish I could sit down at your table!

          • #31 by Birgit Nazarian on June 7, 2012 - 7:21 am

            It’s actually very good but I think I need to tweak it. With all new recipes I tend to rush them and worry about doing something wrong. Just bought a trunk full of groceries at the Mexican grocery store so I did a few new recipes. I cook my gringo-ized Mexican dishes at least 2 times a week – very popular with everyone in my family.

          • #32 by Cooking in Mexico on June 7, 2012 - 11:12 am

            Tweaking a recipe is how you make it your own, and sometimes how you make it better. I just saw that you are now “following” my blog. Thank you so much, but I must tell you that I have not posted anything new since last October. The blog, as much as I love it, had taken over my life, and I was ready to go in a new direction. There is a volume of recipes to try here, and I hope you do try a lot of them. I will always be here to respond to comments and answer questions. ~~ Kathleen
            P.S. When I visit the States, I love shopping at Mexican grocery stores. They are so much fun.

          • #33 by Birgit Nazarian on June 7, 2012 - 12:03 pm

            I understand the whole blog time commitment. Right now I am obsessive and blog frequently. I hope not to slow down, but it depends on what happens. I write for a tech blog too which is my paying job but that got a little tedious so I did my own blogs, one in Spanish, one in English. I like ethnic food stores – always full of fun surprises! I love how you do your posts. I am going to keep going back to see what you archived.

          • #34 by Cooking in Mexico on June 7, 2012 - 12:49 pm

            I’m glad you understand. It’s hard to keep up with a blog and pursue other interests. Maybe I’ll return to it someday. In the meantime, I’ll look forward to hearing which recipes you try and how you tweaked them. Buen provecho!

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