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Salsa: How to choose

Consider fresh vs. refrigerated. At its best, jarred salsa, which has been cooked, is like a good spaghetti sauce, in which flavors meld. At its worst, it can taste like tomato paste. Refrigerated salsa is more like a raw-tomato salad: Ingredients are chopped fresh and put into plastic tubs. Conventional wisdom suggests that uncooked salsa might be better than cooked. However, the refrigerated product we tested, Santa Barbara, was sour, watery, and overpowered by oregano, and its vegetables were mushy, with an old pickled flavor.

Consider the style. Picante salsa usually has a thin base. Chipotle is a smoky quality imparted by smoking jalapeno peppers before adding them to salsa. A roasted salsa's vegetables may have been cooked over a wood fire or grill, which adds a mellow sweetness or smokiness. A salsa with unusual ingredients and different textures might work best as a dip; a simple salsa, as a cooking ingredient.

Consider the heat. The capsaicinoids in hot peppers produce a burning feeling in the mouth, watery eyes, runny nose, and perspiration. The peppers used in many salsas are jalapenos, which are fairly low on the Scoville Heat Scale, a measure of a pepper's potency. Bell peppers have no heat, while habaneros are hottest, with 200,000 to 300,000 Scoville heat units. Jalapenos register about 2,500 to 5,000 units.

Salsas typically come in mild, medium, and hot. Among the "mediums" we tested, the mildest (Chi-Chi's) had about as much zing as A-1 Steak Sauce; the most fiery (Jardine's, Guiltless Gourmet, and Joe T. Garcia's) were on par with Tabasco sauce.

Read our complete Ratings report and related information on salsa & chips (available to ConsumerReports.org subscribers).

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