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Spicy Fermented Salsa: Take Tomatoes to the Next Level

Spicy Fermented Salsa: Take Tomatoes to the Next Level

This spicy salsa is what I like to call the Harvest Special.

If you planned it right this summer — and started those first seeds last fall, however early that may seem — everything that goes into this salsa can come straight from your garden right about now, from the garlic to the tomatoes.

Related: Know When to Grow: A Planting Calendar For Your Garden

But why fermented salsa? Why not normal salsa like you’ve always made?

I’ve used this same recipe for non-fermented salsa and it’s fine. Great, actually. But fermentation pushes it over the line to fantastic.

Bowl of fermented salsa mixed with a wooden spoon

The same bacteria and yeasts that give kraut and kimchi their distinctive flavors also give this salsa a bright and tangy note. It’s lively on the tastebuds without being too sour or too salty.

But taste aside, fermentation actually makes this salsa good for you (and good for your gut) by turning it into a probiotic-laced snack food you can enjoy guiltlessly or “sneak” to picky eaters.

That’s because fermented salsa undergoes the same process of lacto-fermentation as sauerkraut. Simply by letting your salsa sit out for a few days on the counter at room temperature, you encourage all kinds of beneficial bacteria to multiply — the ones you actually want in your food.

Make this next: Fermented Hot Chile Sauce

While many recipes for fermented salsa call for the addition of whey or starter culture, this one lets the existing bacteria (that are already present in all your fresh produce) do the work. It may take a day or two longer to ferment, but the ease of preparation is worth the small wait.

Since you want to help all that good bacteria thrive, I recommend using the best ripe, organic tomatoes if you’re not growing them yourself.

Salsa ingredients sitting on a cutting board

Spicy Fermented Salsa

Makes 1 quart

Ingredients

1 1/2 pounds tomatoes, diced
1/2 red onion, diced
1/2  to 1 jalapeño pepper, minced (depending on heat preference)
1/2 serrano pepper, minced
5 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon pickling salt or sea salt
Juice from 1 lime
Extra-virgin olive oil

Instructions

In a medium bowl, mix the first nine ingredients together (including the seeds and juices from your tomatoes).

Salsa ingredients being prepped and diced on cutting boards
All ingredients mixed together in a metal bowl

Pour the salsa into a quart-sized jar and run a chopstick around the jar to release any trapped air bubbles.

Add a 1/2-inch layer of olive oil on top. The olive oil serves two purposes here: one, it prevents the vegetables from rising above the water and growing mold on the surface, and two, it adds richness to the salsa once you mix it in.

Olive oil pouring into a jar of salsa
Close-up of olive oil layer in a jar of fermented salsa

Loosely seal the jar with a lid and leave it out of direct sunlight for a few days. (I spin the lid only a couple times — enough to keep out dust and pantry pests, but loose enough to let fermentation gases escape.)

The warmer your room temperature is, the faster your salsa will ferment. Within a day or two, you’ll start to see fizzies in the juices as the lactic acid bacteria grow and flourish.

In my very warm kitchen this summer, it took four days for all the ingredients to meld and develop a bold, tangy flavor. You could leave it for up to a week for the tang to intensify; the longer you let it ferment, the longer the salsa will keep. (Not that it would ever last that long in this household!)

Jar of fermented salsa on a kitchen counter

Once the salsa’s to your liking, refrigerate the jar to slow down the fermentation process (and keep the salsa from getting too sour).

The olive oil will congeal in the cold temperature, but is perfectly safe to eat. Just mix it in with a spoon before you use the salsa, or let the jar rest at room temp before serving.

Yield: 1 quart

Spicy Fermented Salsa

Spicy Fermented Salsa: Take Tomatoes to the Next Level

How do you take a salsa that's already great and push it over the edge to fantastic? With fermentation! Fermented salsa brings all the health benefits of good bacteria to the ripe and juicy summer tomatoes you already love. And, it couldn't be easier to make!

Prep Time 15 minutes
Additional Time 4 days
Total Time 4 days 15 minutes

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 pounds tomatoes, diced
  • 1/2 red onion, diced
  • 1/2 to 1 jalapeño pepper, minced (depending on heat preference)
  • 1/2 serrano pepper, minced
  • 5 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon pickling salt or sea salt
  • Juice from 1 lime
  • Extra-virgin olive oil

Instructions

  1. In a medium bowl, mix the first nine ingredients together (including the seeds and juices from your tomatoes).
  2. Pour the salsa into a quart-sized jar and run a chopstick around the jar to release any trapped air bubbles.
  3. Add a 1/2-inch layer of olive oil on top. The olive oil serves two purposes here: one, it prevents the vegetables from rising above the water and growing mold on the surface, and two, it adds richness to the salsa once you mix it in.
  4. Loosely seal the jar with a lid and leave it out of direct sunlight for a few days. (I spin the lid only a couple times — enough to keep out dust and pantry pests, but loose enough to let fermentation gases escape.)
  5. The warmer your room temperature is, the faster your salsa will ferment. Within a day or two, you'll start to see fizzies in the juices as the lactic acid bacteria grow and flourish. It may take up to four days for all the ingredients to meld and develop a bold, tangy flavor. You could leave it for up to a week for the tang to intensify; the longer you let it ferment, the longer the salsa will keep.
  6. Once the salsa's to your liking, refrigerate the jar to slow down the fermentation process (and keep the salsa from getting too sour).

Notes

Once refrigerated, the olive oil will congeal in the cold temperature, but is perfectly safe to eat. Just mix it in with a spoon before you use the salsa, or let the jar rest at room temp before serving.

Nutrition Information:

Yield:

4

Serving Size:

1 cup

Amount Per Serving: Calories: 76Total Fat: 4gSaturated Fat: 1gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 3gCholesterol: 0mgSodium: 302mgCarbohydrates: 10gFiber: 3gSugar: 5gProtein: 2g

Nutrition information isn't always accurate.

Did you make this recipe?

Please leave a comment on the blog or share a photo on Instagram

This post updated from an article that originally appeared on September 19, 2013.

About Author

I'm a plant lover, passionate road-tripper, and cookbook author whose expert advice and bestselling books have been featured in TIME, Outside, HGTV, and Food & Wine. The No-Waste Vegetable Cookbook is my latest book. Garden Betty is where I write about modern homesteading, farm-to-table cooking, and outdoor adventuring — all that encompass a life well-lived outdoors. After all, the secret to a good life is... Read more »

52 Comments

  • Michael Irwin
    March 24, 2019 at 4:06 am

    Due to having respiratory issues, my home is around 68° f year-round. Would sitting it outside during the summer months work better?

    Reply
    • Linda from Garden Betty
      June 10, 2019 at 1:20 am

      Sure, but only if it’s in a dark enclosed space (no direct sunlight). Sometimes, an upper kitchen cabinet works too (as it’s usually warmer from all the cooking going on).

      Reply
  • Rena
    August 29, 2016 at 3:34 pm

    I made this a few days ago. After 24 hrs it tasted really good (I love the olive oil in it!) so I left it another 24 hrs. But then it got a “bite” to it, not exactly what I was wanting as it makes it seem like it maybe went bad on me. Know what I mean? Or is that bite what you mean by tangy?

    Reply
    • Linda Ly of Garden Betty
      October 15, 2016 at 1:09 am

      It starts to take on a slightly more sour flavor as it ferments, so maybe that’s the bite you’re referring to. Sometimes the salsa ferments faster than you think it does if the temperature in the room is very warm. As long as it doesn’t smell or taste rotten, or have black mold growing on the surface, it should be okay.

      Reply
  • ddd
    May 27, 2016 at 11:08 pm

    I’m going to add cilantro after the main ferment is done. I can only get mine from the store and it always pretty dirty. I’d hate for those bugs to get the upper hand.

    Reply
  • Heather
    March 23, 2016 at 7:06 pm

    I made a lovely salsa based on this recipe and topped with a 1/4″of olive oil as instructed…then I saw on Wild Fermentation Group (fb) in the guidelines for safety of fermented veg, oil toppers can be dangerous. Thoughts?

    Reply
    • Linda Ly of Garden Betty
      April 27, 2016 at 1:05 am

      As long as you follow good practices in regards to starting with clean hands, tools, vegetables, etc., as well as adding the proper amount of salt and providing the proper temperature for fermentation to take place, there shouldn’t be any concern with botulism (which I assume you’re talking about). Read more here: http://www.wildfermentationforum.com/viewtopic.php?f=7&t=3654

      Reply
  • Toby
    March 12, 2016 at 8:35 am

    I just made a gallon of this salsa. I used some year old fermented lemons and and garlic. Its the best salsa I have ever had. Thanks for the olive oil trick.

    Reply
    • Linda Ly of Garden Betty
      April 26, 2016 at 11:05 pm

      You’re welcome!

      Reply
  • Tsuri
    December 17, 2015 at 3:50 pm

    I tried this recipe, and I have a question. My salsa tastes very tangy. VERY tangy.
    If you did a side by side comparison between this and Pace chunky salsa, it would be like comparing apple juice and Tang (are you old enough to remember Tang?). Is this normal? Should I throw it out? I have eaten some, and haven’t gotten sick,
    but man is it … tart (wanted to use another adjective besides tangy).

    I am brand new to fermenting; last year was my first time trying
    it. I had 3 batches of mushy pickles, and a pepper mash that turned out great. I used a sealed jar with an airlock.
    I tried the fermented salsa recipe you have here, with the exception of skipping the cumin and fermenting it longer.
    I did have to scrape some white stuff off the top (kahm?) during the process. I don’t know if I did something wrong, and if I did I’m not sure what.
    Maybe if I had used the cumin it would taste differently? Any thoughts?

    Reply
    • Linda Ly of Garden Betty
      December 18, 2015 at 3:05 am

      It sounds like you left it fermenting too long. The build-up of lactic acid is what makes it tangy, and this is normal and harmless. (It’s why fermented pickles are so sour.) My kitchen is generally pretty warm, and I never ferment the salsa for more than 3-4 days. It has a pleasantly tangy kick, but doesn’t taste like pickles. The cumin does add a savory depth of flavor, so that could slightly affect the taste as well. If you’re new to fermenting, it’s always a good idea to taste your ferments as you go until you have a sense of how long you should be fermenting things for optimum flavor, texture, etc.

      Also, this salsa wouldn’t taste anything like Pace salsa. It’s fresher and tastes more like tomatoes.

      Reply
      • Tsuri
        December 18, 2015 at 3:14 pm

        Thank you so much for the quick reply, the advice and the biology lesson (which makes the advice more applicable beyond this one instance)! You are truly living the dream, and the lifestyle you are living is an inspiration to those of us determined to live life outside the cubicle – to truly LIVE.

        Peace!

        Reply
  • Bellwether Nesingwary
    August 15, 2015 at 5:19 pm

    Hey I just made this today after being inspired by local produce from the farmer’s market, most of which is organic. I thought, why not encourage the maximum number of organisms by reducing anything that’s possibly got Glyphosphate or basically poison inside the DNA of the materals?

    I do have a question, as the salsa sits on my shelf. I used water instead of olive oil to submerge the salsa, filling a 1Q jar to the rim which is basically one and a half inches from the tapered neck of the jar.

    How do I remove the water, and will it blend into the juice of the salsa and dilute it? I might try using olive oil next time but I didn’t like the thought of oily salsa. Why is water used, as I noticed about 50% of the recipes do call for water or brine on top of the salsa. I like the idea of using oil (it goes back to the days when we used paraffin on top of the strawberry and grape preserves of my childhood.)

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      August 20, 2015 at 8:04 pm

      You can simply strain your salsa when it’s finished. You’ll lose a little flavor from the natural juices, but it’s better than watery salsa.

      Next time, I encourage you to use the oil instead. It does not make your salsa oily if you use just a small amount as directed. A good olive oil will add richness to the salsa.

      Water (or oil) is used in ferments to keep the vegetables submerged. If they have contact with air, a moldy-looking film can form on the surface. Usually the film is white and harmless (and some people even stir it back into the ferment, since it’s merely an accumulation of good bacteria and yeasts), but if left unattended, it can look unsightly, or it can harbor bad bacteria that then introduces black mold to your ferment.

      Reply
      • Bellwether Nesingwary
        August 20, 2015 at 9:12 pm

        I won’t be using water again. The water was poured on the salsa. Then, one hour later, the salsa was on top of an inch plus of water. So it was watery, plus I ended up removing some white fuzz at the 72 hour mark. Next batch I will either use olive oil, or, use a brewer’s air lock in the top of the jar from my home brew shop.

        Thank you for your knowlegeable and thoughtful reply, and help.

        Reply
  • Jason
    July 27, 2015 at 1:41 am

    Wow, I never thought of using olive oil on the top. That’s a great idea. I usually put a chunk of onion on top to keep everything else submerged, but I’m definitely trying your olive oil suggestion. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      August 5, 2015 at 7:56 pm

      You’re welcome! The oil adds a really nice bit of flavor.

      Reply
  • Andreane
    July 15, 2015 at 5:28 pm

    Hi!! I just made this recipe and wanted to confirm something, I filled the rest of the jar with olive till it covered half an inch like in the recipe. It took quite a bit of oil, maybe a cup ? is this right?? because the juice from the tomatoes and lime only filled like half the jar…

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      July 19, 2015 at 11:31 pm

      I have a wide-mouth jar and use only 1/4 cup of oil (at most, maybe a little less) to cover the vegetables by a half-inch. I’m unsure how you would’ve had the space to pour in 1 cup, unless you did not fill most of the jar with vegetables.

      If you did indeed use 1 cup, that won’t harm the salsa but it’ll throw off the flavor since it’s so oily. I recommend mixing it with more tomatoes/onions/etc (to make a bigger batch of salsa) and eating it as-is, then trying the fermented recipe again.

      Reply
  • Megan in Texas
    May 29, 2015 at 12:38 pm

    I prefer my salsa to be more smooth, as I hate onion chunks. If I put the veggies (or even just the onion) in a blender for a bit, will that be a problem with the process in any way?

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      May 29, 2015 at 8:28 pm

      No problem at all. You can use a blender or food processor to make the salsa as smooth as you’d like.

      Reply
  • Andrea
    March 6, 2015 at 2:35 pm

    Do you need to use a canning jar for this?

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      March 6, 2015 at 11:44 pm

      Nope, any jar will do (as you won’t be canning it). A bowl works as well if you have a lid for it.

      Reply
  • Ian
    March 6, 2015 at 12:00 pm

    I am so relieved to find a recipe that does not ask to use whey! Thanks so much for sharing! I will be making this recipe very soon.

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      March 6, 2015 at 11:45 pm

      Enjoy! 🙂

      Reply
  • Eve
    July 4, 2014 at 11:02 am

    I read this recipe when you first posted it, but haven’t gotten around to making it until a few days ago. Now I have a question: when around day 3, my salsa has risen and broken through the olive oil barrier, is it then necessary to push everything back down and also swirl through it around the edge of the jar to release the newly formed bubbles?

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      July 4, 2014 at 2:19 pm

      You can taste it to see if the flavor’s to your liking, and if it needs to ferment a little longer, just push all the vegetables back down and add a little more oil on top.

      Reply
  • Mona Mayer
    September 25, 2013 at 5:15 am

    Me again, is a week the longest amount of time to let it ferment and also how long does it last in the fridge if one has fermented it a week? thanks again Betty oh and congrats on your wedding!

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      September 25, 2013 at 3:01 pm

      You can ferment it however long you like, as the flavor just becomes more intense. However, since there is not a lot of salt used in this recipe, I probably wouldn’t keep it out longer than two weeks. The salsa will continue to ferment in the fridge, but just a lot more slowly. Theoretically it should last indefinitely because it just keeps producing lactic acid bacteria (which preserves it), but optimal flavor is probably within the first few months.

      Reply
  • Mona Mayer
    September 25, 2013 at 4:52 am

    Hi there, You have a wonderful site! I have all of the ingredients to make this and I was wondering (before I bought the sea salt) if I can use Himalyan Rock Salt instead of the pickling salt or sea salt? Also, when one uses the canning lids to close the jars how is that loosely sealed? I guess that is just not pressing down on the top and not screwing the ring on tight? thank you for your response. Also, sorry to hear about you losing your girl.

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      September 25, 2013 at 2:56 pm

      Yes, you can use Himalayan salt (I love that stuff too!) as long as yours is on the finer side, and not super coarse. (With super coarse salt, you’d have to increase the amount you use.)

      When sealing the jars with canning lids, I just place the lid on top, and make a turn or two with the band so it stays secure but still loose.

      Thank you for thinking about Gisele. 🙂

      Reply
  • Friv Jogos
    September 24, 2013 at 3:42 am

    Quite attractive. If you can be sure that I will try.

    Reply
  • Amanda
    September 23, 2013 at 4:55 am

    Awesome recipe! Can you create a salsa recipe (or other raw pickle) using pumpkins or winter squashes?

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      September 23, 2013 at 4:13 pm

      Pumpkin salsa is delicious, but it’s always cooked in some way to get that sweet tenderness. I’ve made quick-pickled thin-sliced zucchini using the pickling recipes on this blog, but haven’t tried it with winter squash yet. I imagine the process would be the same.

      Reply

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