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Aug 4, 2010 06:59 AM

Difference between a salsa, a salad dressing and a sauce.

What is the difference between a salsa, a salad dressing and a sauce? If these dishes are poured over chicken or fish, they are usually called salsas. Certainly if they are poured over a salad, they are a dressing although I have seen salsas with components that resembled salads.

They often have olive oil and lemon juice. Certainly not always oil. Most of the time they have citrus juice of some sort. I assume to prevent browning and impart a fresh taste. Some of the newer ones have fruits such as peaches or mangoes or melons.

How does someone determine if they are a salsa or a dressing or a sauce or even a salad?

Is this just semantics?

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  1. Salsa is not an English word, it is Spanish. Salsa = sauce. You should also know that traditionally, Latinos do not enjoy their salsa with chips and beer while watching football. It would the the equivalent of us eating ketchup on chips. Sauce is the English equivalent of salsa.

    A salad dressing, as you stated goes on a salad. I would not put a bechamel sauce or a Mexican-style salsa on a salad and call it salad dressing. Salad dressings tend to be an emulsion of oil and vinegar at the most basic level.

    Sauce in the Western European or American sense that it is something that is poured over a finished dish (or used under a finished dish), and can be a large variety of things. Bechamel sauce like I mentioned above, is one. Hollandaise is another kind of sauce (but is based on bearnaise). One can easily see that hollandaise is not even remotely equivalent to Mexican style salsa, or oil and vinegar, so it isn't just semantics.

    3 Replies
    1. re: Shaw Oliver

      I guess what I am really trying to hone in on are these fruit and or melon salsas I keep seeing. They are very fashionable. There is even that caveman commercial where the guy is ordering the duck with mango salsa.

      On the main page of chowhound, they are featuring a cucumber melon salsa and a peach tomato salsa. These dishes by themselves would be salads. If you poured them over chicken, they would be a salsa. Most of these dishes have lemon juice and an oil which could certainly qualify them as dressings.

      1. re: Hank Hanover

        Americans have taken the word salsa and made it something that is our own. It is just what you said: fashionable. People often add fruit to "salsas" in order to change things up a bit and to use up ingredients that would otherwise rot and wither away. I think we have used the word salsa so frequently that it has lost its original meaning here in the US. The kind of salsa that you're talking about (say some fresh onion, tomato, and peach) is really more of a pico de gallo in terms of preparation. These are also known as salsa fresca.

        The way things are prepared also has an impact. If we were to leave the peaches and tomatoes in large slices, arrange them on a plate and sprinkle with onion and chile, then you might have what Americans called a salad.

        I disagree that because you add oil and acid (vinegar, lemon, etc.) to a "salsa" that it turns it into a salad dressing though.

      2. re: Shaw Oliver

        Bearnaise is based on hollandaise, not the other way around. Bearnaise is a hollandaise with shallots, chervil, and tarragon. :)

      3. "Sauce" is the most generic of the terms you are asking about and refers to anything of a rather fluid consistency that is poured on or accompanies food to enhance its flavor. In Spanish, "salsa" would be the roughly equivalent term.

        Sometimes a word adopted from another language takes on a different or more restricted meaning. That is what has happened to salsa, at least in American usage, where salsa generally refers to a sauce or relish made from chopped vegetables or fruit that is chunky in texture.

        Dressings accompany salads, vegetables or occasionally fruit. While many dressings include citrus or vinegar of some kind, it's not a necessary component. A mayonnaise-based blue cheese dressing doesn't, for example.

        A fourth term (not on your list, but perhaps it should be) is "gravy," which is usually understood to refer to a sauce for poultry or meat made from pan drippings. However, regional usage varies. People in parts of New Jersey talk about "tomato gravy," although most of the rest of the country would say "tomato sauce" or "spaghetti sauce."

        So I would say that "sauce" is the word with the broadest meaning, while the other words have a narrower interpretation.

        1. So it probably is mostly semantics. Most of the fruit salsas would be salads if you had bigger pieces and probably dressings if you had really small pieces.

          1 Reply
          1. re: Hank Hanover

            As has been pointed out, Salsa = Sauce in the Spanish/ English translation.

            A true fresh salsa almost never has oil in it. Cooked salsas are usually fried in oil.

            Salsas can range from a completely blended, homogenous consistency like cream, al the way to super chunky.

            The very chunky ones that are made up mostly of fruits and vegetables and no (or very little) liquid fall into a category more often identified in the U.S. as "pico de gallo". In Mexico pico de gallo is often a mixture of finely chopped jicama and orange, though it can also be the tomato/onion/chile mixture and to confuse the waters further, in Morelia, MX, finely chopped fruits with a little juice is called gazpacho. The nomenclature for all of this can be confusing.

            There are cooked salsas made from dried chiles that are soaked and then blended with other (often roasted) ingredients - such as fruits, nuts and spices - and fried to reduce. The cooked sauces can be served at room temp as a table sauce to be spooned over food, as a sauce incorporated into food (such as enchiladas), as the main component of a dish, such as mole or pipian, or as simply a finishing sauce used in plating.

            The uncooked, chunkier salsas in Mexico are mostly small dice tomato, onion, chile, cilantro a little salt and occassionally a wee bit of water to adjust the consistency. These are served mostly as a garnishment for dishes. They are not typically eaten alone with totopos, tostadas or other fried masa. Since big tossed salads are not that common in Mexico, you don't see this style of salsa being used as a dressing. You can, however, take a basic salad dressing base and add either a fresh or cooked salsa and create a salad dressing to use on salads. In that case the salsa becomes just another ingredient, not the dressing itself.

            Salsa is a sauce, nothing more, nothing less. It can be saucy and soupy, it can be thick and chunky. It can be used as an ingredient, as the sauce on a dish, as a garnish or topping, or simply sit on the table for the dinner to add as needed or desired. Depending on the type of salsa it is (fresh vs. cooked) it can be made from a pretty wide variety of fresh and dried chiles, fruits, vegetables, herbs spices and nuts. In other words, a salsa - no matter it's consistency - acts like a sauce in the "traditional" (i.e. European, Continental, North American) sense of the word.

            I often get a chuckle when I see the bottle of "salsa Ingleterra" in Mexico. Literally, that translates to England Sauce, a rather descriptive name for worchestershire sauce.