Look, I'm never going to get tired of simple, Perfect Pickled Onions. But if we want to spice things up every once in a while, that's ok, too. Especially if the spice comes in the form of Salsa Criolla, a South American version of lightly pickled red onions with the addition of heat and subtle sweet from jalapeños and lime juice.
What is Salsa Criolla
Some people consider Salsa Criolla a condiment, other people call it a side dish. It really just depends on how much you eat in one sitting, so I guess Salsa Criolla is an entire meal for me. It is less of "salsa," the kind we use as a sauce or dip, and more of a red onion salad with jalapeños, cilantro, and lime.
I tried Salsa Criolla for the first time as part of Peruvian cuisine, but it is is served in many countries in South America and throughout Latin America. In Argentina, it is often served alongside grilled chicken and steaks, along with chimichurri. When I have salsa criolla in my house, I eat it with everything from avocado toast to grain bowls.
What You Need for Salsa Criolla
Salsa Criolla is even easier to throw together than regular pickled onions. You will need:
- red onions
- aji amarillo, which is a yellow-orange hot chili pepper native to Peru. We don't have easy access to fresh aji amarillo here in the US so jalapeño or serrano pepper is a good substitute
- fresh lime juice
- vinegar (can be substituted with more fresh lime juice)
How to Make Salsa Criolla
It doesn't get easier than tossing 5 ingredients in a bowl and letting them hang out for a few minutes to marinate. Salsa criolla truly is that easy.
There are two notes about prepping onions though. The onions should be sliced lengthwise and as thin as possible, since this is nearly a raw prep of onions.
How to Slice Onions and some FAQs about Prepping Onions
Why should onions be sliced length-wise, from stem to root end aka pole-to-pole, versus cross-wise, which creates rings or exact semi-circles? There is some science behind the answer to this FAQ, which has to do with the physiology of the onions' cells, tearing open the cell walls of the onion and releasing the compounds that give onions their bite. Slicing onions length-wise breaks open fewer of the onions' cells, releases less of that compound, which means they will have less bite when served raw or lightly pickled for salsa criolla.
When onions are sliced cross-wise, or around the equator if you look at the onion as a globe, more of the onions' cell walls are torn open, so more of the compounds with the onion flavor are released, giving it a stronger flavor.
I always cut onions length-wise, for any application, any recipe. Unless I'm making onion rings, and I don't make onion rings.
The other note about prepping onions for Salsa Criolla is to make the slices as thin as possible. Because the onions are essentially raw in this preparation, thinner slices make for a more delicate onion flavor and texture.
Also? Use a razor sharp knife. That's just good kitchen and cooking SOP for any situation. But also a sharper knife makes cleaner cuts, down to the onions' cell walls and releases less of those flavor compounds.
Tools and Equipment
Because it's such a simple recipe with only a few ingredients, salsa criolla doesn't require any special tools or equipment. A stable cutting board and a very sharp knife are all you really need.
If you don't want "jalapeño hands"—getting the chili pepper's natural oils on your hands that don't wash off right away so could be a problem when you touch "sensitive" parts of your body—you might want to wear gloves.
How to Use Salsa Criolla
Use salsa criolla anywhere you'd use pickled onions or chopped fresh onions as a final flavor garnish:
- alongside simple roast chicken for a major flavor boost
- over seared salmon
- on avocado toast
- with cooked brown rice or quinoa for a grain bowl
If you want to make a full Peruvian dinner feast, serve salsa criolla along with these dishes:
- Whole Roasted Cauliflower Head, "pollo a la brasa" style
- Aji Verde sauce
- Spicy Cucumber Avocado Salad
- Crispy Smashed Potatoes or sweet potato fries
- steamed brown rice or quinoa
More Delicious Little Pickled Things
- Perfect Pickled Onions, the original recipe for simple pickled red onions
- Momofuku Pickled Carrots and Daikon aka Vietnamese Do Chua
- Spiced Pickled Onions recipe from Chef Govind Armstrong
Salsa Criolla Recipe
- 1 medium red onion thinly sliced lengthwise
- 1 small jalapeño seeded and thinly sliced lengthwise
- 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
- 1 teaspoon vinegar any kind
- 1 tablespoon thinly sliced cilantro leaves
- ½ teaspoon salt
- Place sliced onions in a bowl of ice water for 10 minutes to take out some of the onion's "bite," then drain and proceed as follows. If you prefer a strong onion flavor, skip this step!
- Combine all ingredients in a bowl.
- Serve immediately, or allow onions to marinate in lime juice and salt for a few minutes.
- Leftover Salsa Criolla can be stored in an air-tight container in the refrigerator for 3 days. Onions will become increasingly softer and more pickled.