The best homemade birria tastes even better with Salsa de Birria, a simple tomato-tomatillo salsa made with serrano peppers and chili de arbol. It’s an easy fit with any Mexican recipe, and it freezes like a dream for future fiestas. And because you control the peppers, it’s only as spicy as you want it to be.
During my travels in Mexico, I learned how the people of Aguascalientes prepare birria for special events with lots of family and friends. Outside of Jalisco, this type of birria is served fork-tender and shredded alongside piles of warm, fresh tortillas and bowls of this exact salsa, right here.
Tomatillos. aka Husk tomatoes, tomatillos look like unripe green tomatoes wrapped in a light green or brown papery…husk! They’re the key to salsa verde, green sauces, and a staple of Mexican cuisine.
If you are lucky enough to live near a Latin American grocery store, or even a market with a well-stocked produce section, they should be easy to find.
Sometimes, if you’re really lucky, right next to the tomatillos might be a smaller looking type of tomatillo: tomatillo milpero. Buy these! The milpero tomatillos are more concentrated in flavor and have slightly less of an acidic bite. If not, that’s okay–the larger variety will do just fine.
Oh, and don’t worry. Underneath their papery shells, tomatillos feel a little sticky. They’re supposed to be! Just give them a rinse under cold water and you’re good to go.
Serrano chilies. This thinner, taller relative of the jalapeño pepper is my preferred pepper for salsas, especially in creamy Avocado Sauce. I just like the kind of heat it brings! Use jalapeño peppers instead, if that’s what you can find.
Mexican oregano. What’s the difference between oregano and Mexican oregano, you ask? Well, the Mexican variety is a member of the verbena family, and has an earthier, grassier flavor profile. Oregano is closely related to mint and tastes amazing on pizza.
Can you substitute one for the other? Personally, I wouldn’t. If you can’t find it, just leave it out. But if you’re looking for Mexican oregano, (and you should!) you can always find it at Latin groceries, good spice shops, and online. It is always sold dried in small packets, very rarely– if ever– fresh.
Stored properly in the pantry, dried oregano lasts for months. It may look dried out, but pull some out and rub it in your palm to reawaken the aroma. See?!? It’s one of my favorite herbs.
Chile de arbol. This dried chili pepper has a couple other names: bird’s beak or rat’s tail peppers. It’s a small but powerful player in salsas, yes, but also in Thai cuisine! As the pepper dries, it stays fiery red, as if to warn you of its spiciness. Usually this pepper is 15,000 to 30,000 heat units on the Scoville scale.
Arbol peppers are easy to find dried, sold by the bag. Store the rest in your pantry in a dark, dry place and you’ll have enough salsa peppers for at least a year.
To make this recipe, it helps to have a blender to purée the salsa.
- First, bring 4 quarts of water to a boil on the stove. Once boiling, add the whole tomatoes, the husked tomatillos, garlic, and both types of chilies to the water. If you’re unsure of how many peppers to put in the salsa, you can always cook them and leave a few out once you get the right level of spice.
- Let everything cook together for 3 to 5 minutes until softened. Drain the vegetables and discard the cooking water.
- Next, add the garlic, tomatillos, and tomatoes to the blender, along with the oregano. At this point, you can go wild and add all the hot peppers, or err on the side of caution and just include a couple before puréeing, tasting, and deciding whether or not to add more.
- Once you reach peak heat perfection, season to taste with salt.
Tips for making salsa:
- Spicy salsa always tastes spicier without food. If you’re adjusting the spice, just remember that you’ll have beans, chips, birria–something to help tame the heat. Few of us eat salsa with a spoon (although this recipe tempts me) and if the salsa tastes a little too picante, chances are things will calm down once the birria is served.
- Make ahead. This is a great recipe to make in advance. Store in the refrigerator for up to a week, or freeze in portions that you can thaw when you need it. Thaw overnight in the refrigerator. You can even put this salsa up in glass jars, if you’re a canner!
Just a few recipes that would be amazing with this stuff:
Beyond Birria tacos, that is!
- Chipotle Burrito Bowl
- Super easy Mexican Rice (Arroz Rojo)
- Cilantro Lime Chicken
- Any fajita that you can dream up: steak, chicken, or shrimp
- Breakfast Burritos
Salsa de Birria
- 2 pounds roma tomatoes (about 10 medium)
- 1 pound tomatillos preferably milperos (see notes), husked
- 2-3 serrano chiles
- 2-3 arbol chiles
- 1 clove garlic
- 1/8 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
- Bring 4 quarts water to boil. Add tomatoes, tomatillos, serrano and arbol chiles, and garlic. Boil until cooked through, about 3 to 5 minutes. Drain well.
- To a blender, add tomatoes, tomatillos, garlic, and oregano. Depending on your tolerance for spiciness, add one or more serrano chiles and one or more arbol chiles, with or without seeds. Blend until smooth.
- Taste and add more chiles and/or seeds depending on your preference for spiciness. Remember, the salsa tastes spicier when warm and when tasted without food. It will be milder after chilling and when eaten with food. Season to taste with salt.