In a little over a week, the 49ers will take on the Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV in what promises to be an epic battle between two old-school teams, but the real contest as far as we’re concerned is something way more exciting: What salsa is a worthy dip to the chips for your Super Bowl party?
So, we put in the hard work so you don’t have to: We held a salsa taste test at the office and invited colleagues in our Brooklyn co-working space to join us for some chipping and dipping.
You may have a favorite boutique regional brand you love and swear by, but like all the highly scientific taste tests we’ve conducted in the past, this one included only salsas that were shelf-stable and available nationwide. We did not consider the more salsa-fresca-style options that you can generally find in the refrigerated sections of most supermarkets.
And even though you can find virtually anything mixed into salsa these days (Craft Beer or Raspberry Chipotle anyone?) we sampled jars that labeled themselves in the most purist way, nothing weird or fancy, just “Thick and Chunky,” in the mild-to-medium spice range. We ended up choosing eight brands: Ortega, Amy’s, Old El Paso, Green Mountain Gringo, Xochitl, Newman’s Own, Tostitos, and Trader Joe’s. All of them cost between $2 and $5 for 16-ounce jars.
It was, of course, a blind taste test: Each salsa was decanted into bowls labeled with numbers on masking tape. Only I knew which number corresponded to which jar.
Every salsa was tasted with the same chip: Trader Joe’s Organic Yellow Corn Tortilla Rounds. Before the crowd gets too rowdy over this call, it was purely personal — we chose the chip for its subtle curve (providing optimum surface area for scooping) and dependable sturdiness, which we knew would hold up against even the chunkiest salsas among us.
Reviewers graded each salsa on a scale from 1 (gross) to 5 (excellent) keeping in mind the following factors: tomato flavor, visual appeal, freshness, texture, color, seasoning, complexity and heat. They were invited to leave comments as well.
File under “Nice work if you can get it.”
Things got as dramatic as a game in double-overtime sudden death! After our players submitted their scorecards, I plugged the numbers into my Google Form to compute averages for each brand. Sadly, most of them hovered in the mediocre 2- to 3-point range…but two of our competitors were EXACTLY TIED…
The Finalists: Green Mountain Gringo Medium All-Natural Salsa ($4.99/16 oz.) and Trader Joe’s Chunky Salsa ($1.99/16 oz.) each garnered a score of 4.2 out of 5. What to do now? Super Bowls don’t have two winners and neither would our salsa showdown. It fell to Christine Han, COJ’s intrepid photographer, and me, to referee the overtime battle. We blind-tasted the two against each other and, to be honest, at that point, the winner seemed plainly obvious.
The Winner: Green Mountain Gringo All Natural Medium Salsa
Score: 4.2 out of 5 points (plus two decisive tie-break votes in overtime)
Price: About $4.99 for a 16-ounce jar
I was surprised by this, considering I’m a Trader Joe’s fan through-and-through, but the freshness factor of Green Mountain Gringo was unmistakably the best of the lot. “This would be great with eggs,” said one reviewer. Others remarked on its “subtle smokiness,” a “deep, rich pepper flavor” that “stayed in my mouth more than others.” And the ultimate compliment: “Tastes like childhood to me.” (I want your childhood, anonymous reviewer!) Plus, the chunky texture made it “appropriately scoopable,” a crucial trait for preventing double dipping at Super Bowl parties. Good to know!
The Runner-up: Trader Joe’s Chunky Salsa
Score: 4.2 out of 5 points
Price: $1.99 for a 16-ounce jar
As for our runner-up (or “First Place Loser” as its known in some circles of the sports world): Trader Joe’s had a “nice sweetness, not a sugary one” that made you “want to go back for more and more.” (That’s saying a lot when you have seven others to try.) “Way more complexity than most here,” said one reviewer, and, all in all, possessed “a good chunk.” Not to mention, the price is certainly right.
The others didn’t fare quite so well. Above, our friend Alexa considers the texture factor in Jar number 4, which we’d later identify as Old El Paso. “Too sweet,” and “very tomato-forward, not in a good way” wrote two separate reviewers about that one. Many remarked on the “mildly upsetting” watery consistency of Xochitl Chunky Style as well as its “marinara-y” flavor that “doesn’t linger” which is probably why it was our lowest scorer (2.52); Tostitos, Ortega, and Amy’s all scored a flat 3 which surprised me. Amy’s was the only organic brand in the round-up and was called out once or twice for its “complexity.” As one reviewer wrote, there’s “something special in there,” though I guess not special enough to take its team to victory.
A special thanks to our downstairs neighbors at Tattly who lent us their discerning palates for the afternoon. Thanks for playing, everyone!
What about you guys? What’s your favorite salsa?
(Photos by Christine Han for Cup of Jo.)