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Picante Sauce vs. Salsa: What’s the Difference?

The world of Mexican sauces is rich and delicious–but it’s also vast and sometimes confusing.

If you’ve ever had to choose between Picante and salsa, you may find yourself wondering just what the difference is between the two.

Let’s take a look at Picante vs salsa so that you can cook or order with confidence.

Picante Sauce vs. Salsa: What Are They?

What Is Picante Sauce?

picante sauce

The word “Picante” in Spanish means spicy. You’ve probably seen a dish at a Mexican restaurant labeled “Picante” to indicate that it’s hot.

So if we ask, “What is Picante sauce?” the answer is simple: a hot (or spicy) sauce.

Picante sauce is straightforward. It includes just the following ingredients:

  1. Tomatoes
  2. Garlic
  3. Onion
  4. Jalapeno
  5. Salt and pepper

The ingredients are put in a blender (or food processor) and blended until the desired consistency is reached. Traditional Picante sauce has a liquid consistency, and it is very smooth. The ingredients are all broken down, so there are no chunks.

Most Picante sauces you’ll find are red, thanks to the tomatoes. And although a spicy experience is guaranteed when ordering Picante, the intensity varies from sauce to sauce. Different chefs add differing amounts of jalapeno, the ingredient that gives the dish its heat.  

You can eat Picante in a variety of ways. Many people love it with chips, while others choose to add Picante sauce to a burrito or some other dish.

What Is Salsa?


Now let’s take a look at salsa.

In Spanish, “salsa” means sauce, so the confusion between Picante and salsa is quite understandable. Both are technically sauces.

Salsa is prepared with either red tomatoes or tomatillos, which are usually served raw, though they can be cooked as well.

It’s vital to remember that salsa is a catchall term for many different varieties. No one ingredient or recipe constitutes salsa. Instead, we can find all kinds:

  1. Chunky
  2. Thin
  3. Smooth
  4. Spicy
  5. Mild

Cooks often get creative with their salsas, as you can add all kinds of ingredients to make it your own.

While a simple salsa can contain just tomatoes, onions, and coriander, more elaborate versions may include things like corn, bell pepper, and juice.

Salsa is also eaten in different ways. It’s very commonly served with chips, though it can be put in various dishes as well.

You can easily find both commercial salsas and fresh salsas, though the latter must be eaten within a few days to maintain freshness.

Differences Between Salsa and Picante Sauce

So how can we tell the difference between Picante sauce and salsa?



Picante Sauce


Spicy, and pungent

Spicy, slightly sweet, and smoky



Thin, light texture


Tomatillos, bell peppers, onions, and tomatoes (usually cooked)

Chilies and peppers (fresh or raw)

If It's Cooked

Ingredients used are either cooked or uncooked

Ingredients used are coocked


The easiest way to differentiate between the two is to observe the consistency of the salsa.

Picante sauce hdas a thin, light texture, whereas most salsa is chunky. The more ingredients salsa has, the chunkier it will be.


Usually, the ingredients in Picante sauce have been cooked, whereas most salsas are served “frescas,” or fresh. This difference gives each dish a very different flavor profile.

Picante sauce is spicier, often smoky, and may have a less acidic taste. On the other hand, salsa is lighter on the tongue. It’s fresh, strong-smelling (thanks to the onions), and acidic.

As mentioned above, some salsas contain extra ingredients (like corn or mango) that can further change the taste.  


The third main difference between Picante and salsa is how they are eaten.

If you go to a Mexican restaurant, you will usually find different Picantes on the table with chips for an appetizer.

But salsa, especially pico de gallo, can be found at all stages of the meal, and it is sometimes a side dish on its own.  

However, this difference is not a hard and fast rule. Picante is sometimes used as a topping for dishes like burritos, so its use is not relegated strictly as an appetizer.

Homemade Picante Sauce and Salsa

How to Make Picante Sauce

Picante sauce is a spicy and tangy condiment that can be made at home. It’s easy to make and it tastes better than the store-bought variety.

This recipe will show you how to make your own Picante sauce in under an hour with just a few ingredients!

How to Make Salsa

I love salsa. I like to make my own because it tastes better and is healthier than store bought.

There are lots of different recipes out there, but I like the one with roasted tomatoes. It’s a little time consuming, but well worth it!

FAQs About Picante and Salsa

What is pico de gallo?

If you’ve ever had Mexican food, you know that pico de gallo is a delicious addition to many dishes.

It’s a type of sauce, though one with a lot less moisture than salsa or Picante, made with just a few ingredients: diced tomatoes, white onion, fresh cilantro, lime juice, and salt.

The distinguishing feature?

None of the ingredients are cooked. Everything is chopped or diced and thrown together. Pico de gallo makes a delicious snack when eaten with tortilla chips, or you can put it on tacos or other dishes to elevate the taste.

A word to the wise: it’s best eaten fresh, so if you make it at home, eat your pico within a day or two.

Is salsa healthy for you?

Salsa typically has an excellent nutritional profile, and it’s especially healthy if homemade.

It can help you feel hydrated and full, as the tomatoes contain a lot of water without consuming many calories.

Store-bought or processed varieties are less desirable than fresh ones, mostly due to the increased salt content.

Additionally, salsa contains quercetin [1], which is an antioxidant found in raw tomatoes and onions.

Is Picante healthy for you?

Picante is also healthy, though perhaps a bit less so than chunky salsa versions. Because the ingredients are blended together, you may lose some nutrients.

However, as long as you’re eating fresh Picante, there are still some benefits–notably the antioxidant lycopene [2] found in tomatoes.

Is Picante sauce salsa?

Yes, Picante sauce is a modern salsa. It can be considered a salsa sub-type.

Which is easier to make – Picante sauce or salsa?

The beauty of these two dishes is that they are both effortless to make.

As long as you have fresh, quality ingredients, you can put together an amazing salsa with relatively little effort.

Can I swap Picante for salsa?

It depends on what kind of flavor profile you’re looking for.

But the short answer?

Absolutely. Just keep in mind that the Picante may have a different flavor, and it will likely be spicier.


There you have it–everything you need to know to differentiate Picante vs salsa.

Now you can order without fear in any Mexican restaurant, and you may even want to try your hand at making your own homemade salsa!

Further Reading

I’m Jennifer Schlette, a Registered Dietitian and Integrative Nutrition Health Coach. I love cooking, reading, and my kids! Here you’ll find the healthiest recipes & substitutions for your cooking. Enjoy, and be well, friends!

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