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Buoyed by America's fascination with Southwestern flavors and a flood of homegrown products with catchy names such as Scorned Woman and Hair of the Ferret, salsa has become the king of condiments, outselling ketchup, barbecue sauce, and mustard.
The basic ingredients of tomato salsa--tomatoes, peppers, and onions--make peppers, and onions--make salsa versatile enough to use in soups, stews, sauces, and marinades, though most people use it as a dip for tortilla chips.
Our search for the nation's best salsas turned up big differences in taste and texture. We found one product almost as good as the salsas made flesh from our own recipes. But the worst were so awful that one taster confided, "If I were alone I would have spit," while another quipped that he was snacking on a "gag gift."
With manufacturers and entrepreneurs introducing an average of more than 100 new salsas a year, it can be hard for a salsa-lover to keep up, so our testers did the work for you. First, our market researchers suggested 50 products for screening by two food scientists, who weeded out those with obvious faults: burnt or stale vegetable flavors, and too much salt or vinegar, for example. (A couple of the castoffs actually smelled like Band-Aids.)
From there, 21 CONSUMER REPORTS staff members, self-described salsa aficionados, took part in blind taste tests. They sampled the salsas plain, then with chips. Afterward, they voted on which of the remaining candidates were worth an in-depth look by our trained sensory panelists. The 11 salsas in the Ratings on page 30 represent a mixed bag of boutique products and widely sold brands. (We included top retail brands not because they wowed testers but to show how they stacked up against the others.) The bottom line:
* Commercial salsas don't usually match fleshly made. Lower-rated products were too watery, too tart, or overprocessed. However, our tests turned up one excellent salsa, Zapata Fire Roasted Salsa Roja, which is sold in more than half the states, and five very good salsas.
* The big sellers--Tostitos, Pace, and ChiChi's--were only so-so. Chi-Chi's, rated lowest, had a funky soapy-citrus quality.
* Although most tested salsas were labeled medium, several left tasters reaching for something to put out the fire. Our Ratings tell the real story
* Most salsas are fat-free and add vegetables to your diet. Their tomatoes contain lycopene, which studies suggest might help prevent prostate, lung, and ovarian cancers. But some are high in sodium: A half-cup of …