Should You Use Fresh Or Canned Tomatoes For Salsa?

Making a good salsa requires some top-quality tomatoes as the key ingredient. Whether you have fresh or canned tomatoes on hand, you will be able to make a great homemade salsa – but which tomatoes work best and when?

Any salsa can be made with either fresh tomatoes or the right canned tomatoes. Using fresh, meaty tomatoes with fewer seeds and juice is best for making a raw Salsa Fresca (like pico de gallo). Canned tomatoes can be used and are ideal for a smooth Salsa Roja.

The typical “salsa” that most people know is the salsa fresca (fresh sauce), which is made with diced fresh ingredients. If you only have canned tomatoes then a smooth sauce can be made too by blending all the ingredients.

Making salsa should not be as complicated as it sounds. There are several variations to making salsa, but once you have found the right match for you, making it should be second nature. Let’s dive into how to make salsa and some common problems.

Fresh Vs Canned Tomatoes For Salsa

Canned tomatoes are best for smooth restaurant-style salsas while fresh tomatoes are best for chunky raw salsas like salsa fresca. Mass-produced grocery store tomatoes can often taste bland, so canned tomatoes might have more flavor if you don’t have access to quality vine-ripened tomatoes or it’s out of season.

Raw Chunky Salsa

Raw salsa with diced tomatoes, onion, cilantro, and lime can go under different names but are all very similar – salsa fresca, salsa cruda, or pico de gallo. These are obviously best made with fresh tomatoes as there is no cooking involved and you want the texture.

Smooth Salsa

A smooth salsa might be known by some as salsa roja (red sauce) or just “smooth restaurant-style salsa”. It is blended to become smooth and the tomatoes can be cooked or raw. Here is a good smooth salsa recipe.

If you’ve got access to good ripe tomatoes then use those. Supermarket tomatoes are often picked early and ripened with chemicals in a controlled environment – this means they can taste very bland. You might make better tasting salsa with canned tomatoes as they are picked very ripe and canned.

Which One?

You aren’t making a gastronomical blunder if you used canned tomatoes over fresh. Salsa can be hot and tangy, or fresh and mild. Deciding to use fresh or canned tomatoes depends on your desired outcome. See my full comparison on fresh tomatoes vs canned.

Using fresh tomatoes in a salsa fresca is best when all your other ingredients are fresh and crispy for a refreshingly light addition to your meal.

High-quality canned tomatoes can have a much more intense flavor as they are picked perfectly ripe and slightly cooked in the can. This is great for a rich, concentrated tomato-flavored salsa.

On the topic of traditional Mexican food, check out my post on what goes into an authentic Mexican taco, you’ll be surprised by the differences to a US taco.

What Tomatoes Are Best For Making Salsa?

When looking for the best tomato for your salsa, choose meaty tomatoes containing fewer seeds and juice like plum tomatoes and others best for sauces. Try to find tomatoes on the vine or grown by yourself for the best flavor.

Some good tomato varieties for salsa are:

  • Roma tomatoes
  • Other “Paste” tomatoes for sauces
  • Big mama
  • Viva Italia
  • Amish paste

Large round tomatoes that you might use for slices in a burger aren’t the best as they have a high juice-to-flesh ratio. The elongated shape is better for more tomato flesh.

When using fresh tomatoes for raw salsa, it is best that you have tomatoes with fewer seeds and juices to prevent a soggy concoction. When diced they don’t make the salsa too watery. When cooking they help reduce your sauce faster and leave you with a thicker dish.

However, you can use any tomato if the best is unavailable to you. You can always scoop out the juice and seeds and drain them.

Should You Cook Tomatoes Before Making Salsa?

For a fresh-tasting salsa like salsa fresca/pico de gallo, it is not necessary to cook your tomatoes. Creating a richer salsa roja (smooth red salsa) can involve cooking or not. Cooking the tomatoes adds a depth of flavor, especially if they are roasted or charred first.

It’s entirely up to you and your intentions as to what dish your salsa will accompany.

Cooked tomatoes are often blended to make a smooth sauce. By blanching and removing skins you also avoid a stringy texture.

For a chunkier salsa, a quick few pulses of the food processor is enough. If you want a smoother texture, blend your tomatoes for a few seconds more until you reach the desired consistency.

There are options as to how to cook and add them to your other ingredients. Roasting your tomatoes before making your salsa adds a rich deep smoky flavor to your salsa. Some recipes will cook the salsa after its blended to reduce it down.

Should You Peel Tomatoes For Salsa?

Keep your tomatoes unpeeled when making raw salsa. When making a cooked salsa, it is advisable to peel your tomatoes before adding them to the sauce. They curl up to add unwanted texture and can taste bitter when cooked.

There is nothing worse than having little red strings floating around and getting stuck in your teeth to ruin your otherwise perfect salsa roja. See my post on fixing a bitter salsa if it turned out that way.

An easy way to peel your tomatoes beforehand is to blanch them.

Core the green core of your tomato and cut a shallow cross at the bottom of the fruit. Pop a few tomatoes in boiling water for about 30 to 60 seconds. Once the skin starts to shrink and pull away from the meat of the tomato, quickly transfer them over to another bowl filled with cold water for 30 seconds.

Once the tomato skins shrivel in the cold water, remove them and peel the quarters off. Your tomato is ready for its next step in the process. I’ve got some more tips on peeling and deseeding tomatoes in another post.

Why Is My Homemade Salsa Watery?

Watery salsa comes from the excess water around the seeds inside the tomato. Use tomato varieties with fewer seeds and juice, like plum tomatoes. Scoop out the center after cutting in half and drain before dicing up the outside flesh.

Earlier in the article, I mentioned the best tomatoes for salsa because these tomatoes have fewer seeds and juices that flood your salsa and make it watery.

The meatier tomatoes are ideal for salsas, either fresh or cooked. But if you don’t have an option, you can use any tomato as long as you scoop out the excess. It adds a bit extra time and patience but can save you from a soggy mess.

For the raw salsa, cut your tomato in half and scoop out the seeds and juice in the center of the tomato. Drain in a colander to allow all the juices to drip out. After dicing your tomato, toss your salsa together.

For a cooked variety, blanch your tomatoes and peel them. After removing the skins, you can remove the insides or just reduce the sauce for longer so it’s not as watery.

How Do I Make My Homemade Salsa Thicker?

Scoop out the watery insides and seeds and allow the tomatoes to drain in a colander. If you are cooking the salsa then you can reduce it down to make it more concentrated.

By removing the excess water you will make a thicker salsa with no other interventions needed. For a raw and chunky salsa, this stops it from bathing in liquid when diced up. For a smooth salsa that’s been blended then this thickens the overall sauce.

It might be tempting to use some corn starch to thicken the sauce like you would other sauces but I would avoid this. It will change the texture too much and also requires cooking which won’t work if you are making fresh salsa.

Why Is My Salsa Pink And Foamy?

When you blend your tomatoes in a food processor for too long it creates a pink foamy salsa. It results from too much air mixing into the blended tomatoes turning the tomatoes pink.

Oops! Your salsa looks more like a frothy milkshake than anything else. It’s nothing to get upset about and you can still save it. 

Allow your blend to rest for twenty minutes for the air to dissipate. If it’s still pink, you can simmer the blend until the pink turn’s red again.

A trick you can do to prevent this from happening again is pulsating your tomatoes rather than blending them continuously.


Hopefully, you now know whether you can use fresh or canned tomatoes in your salsa. While both can be used, they are more suited to different salsa styles.

Salsa fresca or salsa roja, no matter how you prefer your salsa, is a great side dish for many snacks and dishes. Keeping the wholesomeness of the tomato skins in a fresh salsa adds the vitamins and minerals that the skin contains. This can change once you cook the tomato, making it better to skin your tomato before creating a rich cooked salsa.

Have any questions? Ask me in the comment section below and I’ll get back to you.

Tom Hambly

Tom Hambly is the founder of Boss The Kitchen. With a background in cooking and building websites, he enjoys running this site to help other cooks improve. About Tom Hambly.

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