Salsa negra can make an ordinary meal extraordinary with its complex heat and savory flavor, but its deep dark color and blended texture make it a bit mysterious in nature, offering few visual clues about the ingredients it contains. In the coastal Mexican state of Sinaloa where I live, salsa negra is a popular type of salsa “marisquera”—a sauce made especially for seafood. Over the years I’ve learned to love the punch of heat, complexity, and umami that salsa negra lends to ceviches and other seafood dishes, but I wanted to learn exactly what it takes to make a good salsa negra from scratch.
The first step was the easy part: I just had to start paying attention. I tasted the house salsas at seafood stands (including one inky, viscous recipe creatively named “salsa Pemex,” after Mexico’s state-owned oil company). I also began reading the labels of the numerous bottles on the tables at sit-down restaurants. That’s how I found out that one of my favorite salsa negra brands, Salsa Pirata, was made just three blocks from my apartment in the city of Mazatlán.
Talking to Josué Ponce Aguilar, founder of Salsa Pirata, I learned that salsa negra is relatively new to the area: It originally comes from the city of Los Mochis, on the north end of the state. Over the past decade, it has become more popular in Mazatlán, and today it’s hard to find a seafood restaurant in the city without a bottle of Salsa Pirata on the table.
Josué generously offered me a few pointers on where to start on a recipe (though of course, the exact spice mix and process used to make his salsa are highly proprietary). He said that the base of a good salsa negra is soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, and two specific kinds of chiles: árbol chiles and chiltepines, a tiny chile that is likely the wild ancestor of the domesticated chiles most people are familiar with. From there, the spices added can vary and every cook has their own mix.
With the base of the sauce more or less figured out, I began to experiment with my own spice blends. Many of the salsa negra recipes I’d seen in my research involved a shortcut approach of mixing several brands of hot sauce like Valentina, Tabasco, and Salsa Huichol with soy sauce to achieve their balance of spice and umami. Since I wanted my recipe to truly be from-scratch, I began to look into what went into those salsas—once again, this was closely guarded information but the internet is full of culinary sleuths who had already reverse-engineered these classics. I found one rumor claiming that the secret ingredient in Salsa Huichol is a special type of pineapple vinegar made in Nayarit, inspiring me to experiment with adding traces of fruit and fruit vinegar to my salsa negra. For the record, adding a tiny amount of pineapple juice to this recipe is delicious, though it’s nothing like a typical salsa negra, so it ultimately didn’t end up in my recipe.
In another online forum, I found hypotheses about which brands used aromatics like cumin, cinnamon, and clove to give their bottled recipes a special twist. Through my own taste tests and trial and error, I eventually settled on adding a blend of onion powder, cumin, black pepper, clove, and a tiny bit of dried Mexican oregano to my salsa negra. This created a complex and well-rounded spice profile to balance the sauce’s chile heat and umami from the soy sauce and Worcestershire sauce.
Using a molcajete or mortar and pestle to grind and blend the salsa is critical for success. When I simply blended the chiles in a blender or food processor, the heat of the chiles was overpowering. The welcome raisiny, smoky undertones of the árbol chiles and the citrusy notes of the chiltepín were muted by the overt heat in the blended versions. However, toasting and hand-grinding the chiles into the salsa let those flavors shine and gave the salsa more texture, since the chiles weren’t so uniformly and finely ground. Plus, the small quantity of sauce this recipe makes can be difficult to blend properly in an electric blender.
This type of salsa is typically used as a hot sauce for ceviche, but its possibilities go far beyond that. Add it to shrimp tacos, oysters, sushi, or fish for extra savory spice. It can also be used to deepen the flavor of marinades for steak or as a salsa botanera—a salsa for a wide range of small bites and snack foods.
In a medium bowl, whisk together soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, lime juice, tomato paste, onion powder, Jugo Maggi, cumin, black pepper, and clove. Crumble the oregano into powder with your fingers, then stir into the soy sauce mixture.
In a small cast iron or stainless-steel skillet, toast the árbol chiles and chiltepín chiles over medium heat, stirring frequently, until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a molcajete or mortar and pestle.
Add 1 tablespoon (15ml) soy sauce mixture and chiles and grind until seeds are mostly pulverized and the largest remaining scraps of dried chile are no more than 1/4-inch long (see notes). Scrape in remaining soy sauce mixture and stir and scrape until well combined with chile paste. Grind in additional chiltepîn chiles one or two at a time until desired heat level is reached. Let stand at least 1 hour for flavors to meld, then serve with your favorite seafood dishes or refrigerate in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks.
Molcajete or textured mortar and pestle
You can find Jugo Maggi at most Mexican grocery stores or on Amazon. The version available in the U.S. is called Maggi Seasoning, but the recipe and taste are quite different; both use wheat protein but Jugo Maggi is more concentrated, with additional spices and vinegar.
Make sure to use Mexican oregano, a plant in the verbena family, and not Italian oregano (which is in the mint family). If it isn’t available at your regular grocery store, you can find it at a Mexican grocery store.
The more finely ground the chiles are, the thicker the salsa will be. You can thin out the final salsa with a small amount of water or soy sauce, if needed. Adjust to your desired consistency.
Make-Ahead and Storage
This salsa is best if made at least 1 hour ahead of serving to give the flavors time to meld. It can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks.