Salsa Picante de chiles de árbol (“hot sauce”)

Salsa Picante de chiles de árbol (“hot sauce”)
Salsa picante literally means “hot sauce” (in Spanish, chiles are picante – “piquant” – rather than caliente – “hot”). And of course there are only about a million Mexican salsas that are described as picante. This one, made from chiles de árbol, is particularly popular.

Chiles de árbol are the second-hottest chile generally used in Mexican cuisine, after the habanero (though nowhere near as hot as that). One of their most common uses is as the principal chile in a smooth-textured pourable table sauce that Mexicans like to add to just about any snack or street food, the way we would use ketchup.

A commercial version of this salsa, Cholula, is now available in the UK, but it tastes even better if you make it yourself. Chiles de árbol are available from The Cool Chile Company and this recipe uses an entire bag.

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  1. 60 g chiles de árbol (plus reserved seeds)
  2. 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  3. 20 g sesame seeds
  4. 20 g pumpkin seeds (hulled)
  5. 4 allspice berries
  6. 2 cloves
  7. a pinch of cumin seeds (½ tsp or 5 g max)
  8. 180 mL cider vinegar
  1. Cut the stems off the chiles and twist them gently between your fingers until the seeds fall out. Save the seeds. There are easily 50 or 60 chiles in the bag, so this takes a while.
  2. Heat a dry frying pan over medium high. Put the chiles in the pan and gently stir until they just begin to darken and you can smell a chile aroma rising. This won’t take long and because the chiles are smooth and thin-skinned they burn easily (I learned this the hard way).
  3. Put the chiles in a bowl and cover with just-boiled water. Weigh them down with a plate and let soak for 15 minutes.
  4. Meanwhile toast each kind of seed and spice separately in the hot dry frying pan until they darken slightly and release their aroma. Stir constantly so they don’t burn. When it comes to the pumpkin seeds, let them sit until the first one pops, then stir constantly until they all have popped. When it comes to the chile seeds, they will burn quickly; if one pops, it’s time to take them off the heat. Also, they will release capsaicin vapour into the air, so do them last and keep the extractor fan running.
  5. Put the seeds and spices into a molcajete (mortar and pestle) with the minced garlic and grind down to a paste.
  6. Remove the chiles from the water and put in a blender with the ground garlic, seeds, spices, and vinegar and blend to a smooth texture.
  7. Add up to 200 mL of the chile soaking water, a tablespoon at a time, until the salsa is a thin, pourable consistency, sort of like Tabasco, but with pulpy bits.
  8. Now pour the salsa through a sieve to strain the pulp out. You will have to press the pulp against the sieve with a spoon to make sure you extract every drop of liquid.:(Actually I pass it through a sieve first and then put the remaining pulp through a muslin and squeeze really hard. This stains the muslin – and your hands – something awful, but you don’t want to lose any of that precious sauce.)
  9. Put the strained salsa into a sealed container and let it mature in the fridge overnight. It will be a beautiful bright orange colour. It contains enough vinegar that it will literally keep for months in the fridge.
  10. Many recipes omit the seeds, and quite a few (including Cholula) add the tiny (but very hot) piquín chiles (also available from the Cool Chile Company), but I find this is far and away the best version of this salsa. In fact, this may be my favourite salsa ever.
Note from the gringa
  1. I always use disposable latex-free gloves when working with chilies. Available in large quantities at any catering or medical supply company for sure. But you can also get a pack of 10 at Boots (or any other chemist) – they are kept with the first aid supplies.
  1. Is an Edinburgh-based blogger and his site is a journey in celebration of Mexican food in the UK: home cooking, restaurant reviews and the finest products and ingredients on the market. Find more recipes and news at
Adapted from Rick Bayless
Adapted from Rick Bayless
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