Q: I’ve had a recurring discussion with people over the last few months about “salsa” and “hot sauce” and the differences between the two. Most all of them point to articles they find online that say that “hot sauce” would be more like Cholula and Tabasco and the stuff that comes with chips at a restaurant is always “salsa.” But these pieces are typically written by people in regions of the country that don’t eat hot sauce or salsa on a regular basis, so I’ve come to you for assistance. Personally, I feel that hot sauce is any type of sauce with a more liquid consistency and spicier flavor, and salsa has more of a chunky pico de gallo type of consistency. But what say you?
Jason Gallegos, Fort Worth
A: What to call a particular piquant potion is a hot and recurring topic of conversation around these parts. Is it hot sauce or is it salsa? The answer, as you have learned, depends on who you ask. Note: relying on folks who aren’t familiar with what they’re talking about is not a path anyone would advise going down, so the Texanist, who is a connoisseur of all sorts of spicy things, including delicious versions of the two types of tasty comestibles you have described, is glad you’ve turned to him for an answer.
Here in Texas we’re blessed with an endless variety of both hot sauces and salsas, including, but by no means limited to, red ones, green ones, orange ones, jarred ones, bottled ones, canned ones, and fresh ones, like the mean pico de gallo (beak of the cock) the Texanist occasionally whips up at home. Among these, there are thick ones, spicy ones, thin ones, mild ones, chunky ones, vinegary ones, and combinations upon combinations thereof.
As a small evidentiary sampling, consider the classic Mexican-style bottled hot sauces, or “salsas picante,” such as Cholula, Valentina, and Tapatío; and the Louisiana-style bottled hot sauces such as Crystal, Tabasco, and the eponymous Louisiana. And then, too, there’s bottled pepper sauce, the clearish, vinegary staple of the Southern table. Additionally, Texans are no strangers to chile sauces, such as Sriracha “rooster sauce” and the like, as well as Chinese chile oils and Southeast Asian sambals.
And then there are the salsas frescas, the pico de gallo, and the familiar Mexican-style salsas found on the condiment aisles of our grocery stores and accompanying the baskets of chips at our Tex-Mex eateries. The Texanist, by the way, has long been a firm believer that chips and salsa served at restaurants should always be delivered gratis, as the good lord intended and as was once the universal norm. Nowadays, free chips and salsa are the exception rather than the rule. This bums the Texanist out. Such lagniappes do not cost restaurateurs an arm and a leg and they go a long way toward promoting happiness and goodwill. Please pardon the Texanist, but that had to be said. Long live free chips and salsa!
Now, back to your question: What’s the difference between hot sauce and salsa?
Nearly all salsas as we know them are, technically speaking, hot sauces. Most of them are spicy, and “salsa” is, of course, the Spanish word for “sauce.” So, pedantically speaking, a salsa is a type of a hot sauce. But that’s not what most of us mean when we say “hot sauce.” The consensus among the people the Texanist consulted for his informal poll is that, as you stated, hot sauces are thinner in consistency and shaken onto other foodstuffs, while salsas are chunkier and are usually put to use as dips, such as one finds with the aforementioned chips and salsas (which, to reiterate, should be free).
The complication is that the Texanist has in his lifetime enjoyed numerous spicy blends he regarded as salsas that were as thin and runny as straight tomato juice and has also asked waitstaff on numerous occasions for refills of “hot sauce” when referring to the stuff that goes with the chips. It turns out that the difference between hot sauce and salsa is a complicated matter involving linguistics, semantics, culinary arts, and personal preferences. There simply is no definitive set-in-stone identifier separating hot sauces and salsas. Such determinations must therefore be made on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the many caveats, exceptions, variances, anomalies, and occasional conditional stipulations. You just know one from the other when you see it.
Does that answer your question? Please say yes even if it didn’t, because the Texanist’s head hurts from thinking about all of this and he’s thirsty for another margarita. Besides, the real takeaway here is that whether you call it hot sauce or salsa, if you’re at a restaurant and it comes to your table in a bowl and is accompanied by a basket of warm and salty tortilla chips, it ought to be free!
Have a question for the Texanist? He’s always available here. Be sure to tell him where you’re from.