Authentic Mexican Sauces 101

Salsas mexicanas
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What first comes to mind when you think about Mexican food – beans, rice, hot peppers? Actually, authentic Mexican food is largely about sauces. There are cooking sauces, table sauces, and bottled sauces galore; rarely will there be a snack or meal in Mexico without some sort of sauce on it or at least available for it.

Despite the narrow meaning it has in the United States, the Spanish word for any sauce is salsa. That’s right, anything from ketchup (salsa cátsup) or Worcestershire (salsa inglesa) to Hollandaise (salsa holandesa) to an Asian sweet and sour (salsa agridulce)—they are all considered salsas. The American concept of salsa, a tomato-based mixture intended for use with chips, is just one tiny particle in the huge universe.

Mexican Table Sauces

Table sauces are those which are, logically enough, often placed on the table for each person to pour, sprinkle, or spoon onto their food in the amount desired. They tend to be spicy, but the degree of spiciness varies greatly, depending on the types of peppers used in their creation, the intended “target” food(s), and regional as well as personal taste. American “salsa” is a table sauce—but it’s only one of the hundreds of varieties.

Examples of table sauces include pico de gallo and salsa verde.

Also included in this group are guacamoles and those commercially-produced bottled sauces (often deep red or orange colored—Valentina, Búfalo, and Cholula are some common brand names). Though not exactly in the form of sauces, pickled jalapeño peppers and similar condiments also fit in here, for the simple reason that they are used in a similar way as table sauces.

What to Use Them On?

Table sauces exist to turn ordinary into extraordinary, so don’t relegate them to simply chip dip. Try them on fried or scrambled eggs, plain meats, pasta and cheese dishes (from quesadillas to mac and cheese to souffle), hamburgers and hot dogs, baked or fried potatoes, soups and stews, and yes, tacos—most especially tacos.

Which Table Sauce to Use When?

In general, choice of table sauce depends on personal taste and possibilities: make the one you like the most or the one for which you happen to have the ingredients handy. If you are going to have guests, it often makes sense to prepare more than one (with varying levels of piquancy)—a red one and a green one, for example, or a creamy guacamole and a spicy tomato salsa—to give the guests a choice.

There are, of course, a few dishes which are traditionally served with one particular table sauce. Cochinita Pibil, for example, is usually paired with an onion and habanero sauce, and tacos al pastor seems to go naturally with Chile de Arbol sauce. Pay attention to table sauce recommendations if they are given in a particular Mexican recipe.

Mexican Cooking Sauces

Cooking sauces are those that are used to make a recipe. The dish’s main ingredients are usually placed in the sauce by the person making the food, as opposed to being sprinkled with the sauce by the person eating it.

Cooking sauces also tend to be spicy, although often not to the degree that table sauces are; this makes since when you consider that one generally eats much more of a cooking sauce than of a table condiment.

One of the best things about Mexican cooking sauces is their versatility. While there are some cooking sauces that are very closely identified with specific dishes (chicken or turkey with mole sauce, for example), practically any cooking sauce can be used in many different ways. An example: pork in green sauce is delicious—as is chicken, beef, chicharrón, sausages, or even eggs in the green sauce.

Sauces are often helpful when adapting traditional Mexican dishes to the tastes and needs of each family’s particular circumstances. Time to reduce your consumption of red meat? Cooking sauces almost always work just as well with chicken, fish, or tofu. Need to save money? An egg can be a feast if cooked in a delicious sauce. Learn to make just one Mexican cooking sauce and you will you have added a powerful, versatile staple to your repertoire.

Subcategories of Cooking Sauces

  • Tomato and tomatillo sauces are delicious creations that have one of those ingredients as their main element. They usually also include either fresh or dried chile peppers, onion, salt, and/or garlic, and sometimes additional ingredients. Examples: ranchera sauceveracruz sauce.
  • Moles tend to be relatively thick and complexly-flavored sauces that contain a variety of seeds, herbs, and spices. Some well-known moles are mole poblano, Oaxacan black mole, and green mole.
  • Mexican adobos are generally red in color, as they are usually made with dried pepper such as ancho chile or chipotle chile. An adobo sauce can be a liquid in which meat is cooked or a thick paste rubbed onto a large chunk of meat, giving it a smoky piquancy. (The term adobo is used for various different kinds of preparations in other Latin American cuisines.)
  • Pipianes are relatively thick sauces made from squash seeds or other seeds that are ground and cooked with other ingredients.
  • Cream sauces appeared in Mexico’s cuisine during the 19th and early 20th centuries, a time when everything from France-including French cooking-was in fashion among the upper classes. Cream and cheese sauces are often used in Mexico to this day in dishes intended for holidays and special occasions. An example would be the cream and walnut sauce poured over the classic Chiles en Nogada.