For a Sweeter, Deeper Salsa, Roast the Hell Out of Your Ingredients

For a Sweeter, Deeper Salsa, Roast the Hell Out of Your Ingredients
Photo: Claire Lower

I moved into my home in the winter, when the yard was freshly sodded and a few decorative shrub-like plants dotted the perimeters of my yard. Owning a house in the winter is different than owning a house in the spring — things grow in the spring, and a lot grew around my house. Once the weather warmed, I was delighted to find an established asparagus bed, several flowers I had not planted, and so many tomatillo plants.

These things are everywhere. The previous owners — who lived next door until just recently — had clearly planted many of the plants, and their seeds had spread to the front, back, and sides of the house. I’m obviously not complaining, because it takes a whole lot of tomatillos to make a decent amount of salsa.

If you think you’ve never had a tomatillo before, yes, you actually have (probably). It’s the key ingredient in salsa verde, a ubiquitous salsa that dates back to the Aztecs. If you’ve never had a whole, fresh tomatillo before, it’s worth trying all by itself. It’s sweet and a little tart, and denser and little less juicy than a tomato. Roast them down, and they get sweet and deep.

Before I added the garlic. (Photo: Claire Lower) Before I added the garlic. (Photo: Claire Lower)

Recently, I decided to see just how sweet and deep they could get, so I chucked about 285 g of whole tomatillos in my air fryer basket, along with some peppers I had picked from my garden and four cloves of garlic. I roasted it all with a couple tablespoons of olive oil and two generous pinches of salt for 45 minutes in a 150C air fryer, stirring occasionally until the tomatillos et al. became a juicy, caramelised mass of plant matter. I blended it all together, then doctored it with lime.

Photo: Claire Lower Photo: Claire Lower

It was good, but very sweet, almost too sweet; it demonstrated just how efficient roasting can be as a method for adding sweetness without adding additional table sugar (or agave, or anything else). Roasting kicks off both caramelization and the Maillard reaction, while also driving off water and intensifying sweetness. It works so well that you have to be a little careful while wielding its power.

I, for example, went a little too hard with the roasting, and my salsa was slightly too sweet. If I were to do it again, I’d roast about half of the ingredients, and leave some tomatillos and peppers raw to balance out the deeper, stickier flavours with some zing and pep.

But if you, for example, have a salsa recipe you want to tweak to make it a little deeper, darker, and sweeter, just roast some of the ingredients, and roast them well, until they give up their juices, lose their shape, and develop some colour. (You can use and air fryer like I did, or you can use a normie oven. Both are great options.) Blend the roasted stuff into your salsa with the rest of your ingredients to sweeten the batch, all without any added sugars or sweeteners.

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