I haven't bought salsa from the store in more than 18 years because of this recipe, which comes from my Uncle Bert.
The Very Best Taco Salsa
If you’re hankering for a slightly sweet, slightly spicy salsa, one that you can dig into with tortilla chips, slather on your breakfast eggs, or use to spice up your favorite burrito or taco salad . . . if you're looking for a salsa that has a history of love and avid appreciation behind it . . . look no further. This recipe is definitely for you. I hope you, your family, and all your friends make memories around it for years to come.
Please note that making this salsa is a two-day affair, culminating on day two with canning using either a pressure cooker or water-bath canner. That said, while you're waiting for the tomatoes to soak in salt overnight, you can read the story of this salsa, my dad, my Uncle Bert, and the beloved fishing and hunting trips of my younger years. I'll share the recipe with you first, and then you can join me for a trip down memory lane.
- 1 gallon tomatoes, peeled and cut into small pieces
- 1 cup salt
- 2 cups brown sugar
- 2 cups onion, chopped
- 2 cups celery, chopped
- 2 cups bell pepper, chopped
- 1 cup jalapeño peppers, seeded and chopped
- 2 cups vinegar
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- Tomatoes: It takes more than a gallon of tomatoes to make a gallon of chopped tomatoes, so be aware of that. We use about half a grocery bag full of tomatoes when we get set up to make this recipe.
- Jalapeños: If you look at the photo of the recipe card (above), you can see that I've added a note in the bottom-right corner to reduce the amount of jalapeño peppers. Rather than the full cup that my Uncle Bert recommends, I prefer to use about 1/3 to 1/2 cup, depending on how potent the peppers are. This is because none of us in my family really like things too spicy hot. If you’re into spice, though, then by all means adjust accordingly. I'd suggest starting with one cup, as you'll see that you'll get a pretty spicy salsa. At the end of the day, though, it's your call on how hot you'd like it to be.
First I'll give you a quick overview of the process, and then I'll get into the step-by-step. I've also included notes about how my wife and I work together to speed the process along. Don't be intimidated by the lengthy instructions here; my hope is that the added details will make it easier for you to follow along! And in the end, I promise you'll love the results.
- Day 1: Mix the blanched, peeled, and chopped tomatoes thoroughly with salt. Chill overnight in the refrigerator; then drain the juice and discard.
- Day 2: Mix drained tomatoes with brown sugar, onion, celery, bell pepper, jalapeño peppers, vinegar, and black pepper. Ladle the salsa into jars and process according to your equipment manufacturer's directions.
Day 1: Process the Tomatoes
- Blanch the tomatoes in boiling water, ice them off in a bucket of ice, and then peel and chop into small pieces. In my house, this is a two-person job. I boil the water and drop a bunch of tomatoes into the boiling water. When the skin starts to crinkle and looks like it’s ready to separate from the tomato, I move them one by one with a pair of tongs to a bucket or cooler full of ice and water that we put on the floor in between us. My wife then pulls them out of the ice water, peels the skins off with a paring knife, chops them, and puts them in a big glass bowl.
- When the blanching, peeling, and chopping is done, mix the tomatoes well with the salt (I do this with my hands), cover loosely with foil or plastic wrap, and then put it in the refrigerator overnight.
Day 2: Combine all Ingredients
- Remove the tomatoes from the refrigerator and drain the juice from them. I use a colander to do this. Typically, I will let the tomatoes drain in the sink while I am chopping up the rest of the vegetables (onion, celery, and bell peppers).
- Once all of the veggies are chopped and the tomatoes are drained, combine them in a very large bowl with the brown sugar, jalapeños, vinegar, and pepper. Mix well.
- Pour the mixture into sterilized pint or quart jars, and then cover with sterilized lids and rings. Process according to equipment manufacturer’s directions.
How to Can the Salsa
To can your salsa, you can have two basic options:
- Water-bath canner: My wife prefers this method primarily because this is what she grew up with when her parents canned vegetables every year.
- Pressure cooker: I prefer to use this method because it's more versatile. I can also use the pressure cooker to process fish, cook a brisket, and so on and so forth.
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At the end of the day, both methods will work for this type of canning, so when we make this recipe, we actually use both methods simultaneously. We get both the water-bath canner and the pressure cooker going on the stovetop so we can get more salsa done and put up in a lot less time.
Once you have processed the salsa in whichever appliance you prefer, put the jars on a towel on the counter, wait for the lids to pop and the jars to cool, and then store in the pantry until ready for use. Be sure to check the lids for a tight seal when the jars have all cooled to room temperature. You’ll know they’re sealed if the lid doesn’t have any flex to it when you push down in the center of it with your finger. Don’t do this until they’ve cooled to room temperature, though, as you want to give the jars every opportunity to seal themselves.
It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes the lids don’t seal properly. If you find one that has not sealed after it is completely cooled, take that jar and put it in the refrigerator or, better yet, open it up and start enjoying The Very Best Taco Salsa right away. After that, you can put it in the refrigerator!
The Story of The Very Best Taco Salsa
When I was younger, when my dad was still with us before his passing at the far-too-young-age of 66, I used to fish and hunt a lot with him, his brother, and a group of my dad’s retired Air Force friends. Camp was always a hoot with this eclectic and hilarious group of guys. They picked at each other, talked copious amounts of smack back and forth, and reveled in some world-class camaraderie. We all drank a few beers, played some really stupid (but very fun) “every-card-is-wild” poker games, and we always ate and snacked well.
My dad and his older brother—my Uncle Bert—were both great cooks. Bert still is, I guess; that’s probably a better way to say that. Anyway, between the two of them there was always a great pot of soup or stew for the evening meal, some marinated steaks or venison, kebobs of one sort or another, fresh corn on the cob, baked potatoes as big as Shaq’s hand . . . always something that one or the other (or both) of them prepared carefully, lovingly, and thoughtfully ahead of time, brought to share with the group.
On some evenings, if we were fishing and the fishing gods had smiled down upon us earlier that day, we would even have fresh fish. Typically, the fish were battered in a special batch of Fry Krisp batter, deep-fried in a propane gas outdoor turkey cooker full of Wesson oil. Man, we really ate well.
I remember that arrival at camp, cabin, fishing spot, hunting spot, wherever, was always hotly anticipated. Everyone would start unloading their gear, asking about deer sightings or the report on the fish bite, and the sh*t-talking would also, of course, begin in earnest, too.
There was another thing that would invariably happen right off the bat, though, and I do mean invariably—it wasn’t really a matter of if, but instead more a question of when and who, and I guess it typically happened almost immediately upon the first sighting of my Uncle Bert.
“Bert,” fisherman X or hunter Y would say, “Did you bring any of your salsa? I’d buy a jar if you have any extra.”
Bert always had extra, but it was never for sale. Oh, it’s not that he was stingy, mind you, it’s just that he’d really rather give it away, and he quite often did, but usually not until we’d opened and consumed several jars during the course of the hunt or the fishing trip. This salsa, my friends, was the stuff of Short Pines Deer Camp and Sheridan Lake fishing trip legend.
Sometimes the first jar would get opened immediately on arrival, after the inevitable query was posted; sometimes we’d not get to it until during the first evening meal prep, or at the first night’s poker game. But if men were gathered, food was being prepped, beer was being drunk, bullsh*t was being strewn, the salsa was right there in the middle of it all.
“Hot damn, that’s good stuff, Bert,” one would say.
“I sure would like to have that recipe,” from another.
I think we’d probably go through several jars of the stuff over the course of a two-to-three-day fishing or hunting trip. Honestly, it was just the kind of thing that was ever-present during these occasions; it was part of the fabric of the event, the milieu of the moment. The kind of thing that we made memories around without even really thinking about it.
I do miss those days dearly. I miss my dad, I miss watching him interact with those guys, his friends and brothers. My father was the king sh*t-flipper, one of the quickest wits in the bunch. He could get and give with the very best of them, ready with a sharp leading jab and even more ready with a comical retort in response to any and all comers.
What I don’t miss, what I don’t have to miss, is my Uncle Bert’s salsa. I make it most every year, every other year at the outside. He gave me the recipe something like 18 years ago, I’ll bet, and my wife and I made it for the very first time back when we lived in Abilene, Texas, in the early to mid 2000s. Ever since, I’ve always had on hand at least a few jars of my Uncle Bert's famous salsa.
This year, my wife and I once again planted our garden with the salsa-making specifically in mind. Oh, we won’t grow our own celery and onions, but we will have our own fresh tomatoes, peppers, and jalapeños for the recipe. I finished up the third-to-last jar at breakfast just a few weeks back, so before summer’s gone, we’ll definitely be in need of more around here.
Tell Me What You Think!
Enjoy, everyone, and let me know if you have any questions as you're making your first batch of The Very Best Taco Salsa.
© 2020 greg cain