Cooking Class: Salsa Edition

Before and during our roving retirement, we have found that cooking classes, food tours, and market tours provide us with key insights into the culture of a place and it’s people. Naturally, we had to take a cooking class since we were in Playa del Carmen for a month.

The cooking class we selected through Airbnb Experiences in Puerto Morelos turned out to be a salsa making class. Salsas are essentially sauces that are an integral part of Mexican cuisine. The other essential category of sauce of Mexican cuisine is called mole and we will tell you about mole in another article.

As a side note: you can book an Airbnb Experience without booking lodging through Airbnb. Some of their experiences are more interesting than tours through other vendors such as Viator because they make it very easy for individuals to create and market an activity.

Class Begins

Our class consisted of 6 students. Initially, we were each handed a variety of fresh, dried and smoked chiles to smell and feel. The dried ones were typically smooth but pliable and the smoked versions were more leathery in texture. Scratching their surfaces released volatile oils that revealed their distinct flavors. Fresh, dried and smoked forms of the same chile have different names. A smoked jalapeno is called a chipotle pepper, for example.

Then we watched a funny animated video about chiles, that showed why our bodies perceive them as hot. Capsaicin is the part of the chile that contains the heat. We also saw how chiles are ranked for heat on the Scoville scale. We always thought the heat was in the seeds but it turns out that the heat is in veins of the chile.

Prep school

We then went outside to get started actually making salsa. First, we had a shot of mezcal with a section of fresh orange sprinkled with worm salt. Once the opening festivities concluded, we watched as Armando, our host, and classically trained chef, roasted some tomatoes, tomatillos, onions, and garlic while he rehydrated the dried and smoked chiles. After rehydration, he carefully opened the chiles and removed the membranes (ribs), which removed some of their heat while retaining the rich chile flavors. We were told we could add some heat during the salsa assembly process.


To blend our ingredients, we each had an authentic molcajete (mortar and pestle) which was hand-hewn from volcanic rock (basalt) in Jalisco, about 1800 miles from Playa Del Carmen.  Being made of basalt, real molcajetes are basically indestructible, somewhat porous and slightly irregular in form. They are also difficult to clean perfectly and eventually get “seasoned” from prior use; which is considered a feature. Fake molcajetes are made from cement and can chip over time and don’t really get seasoned. Restaurants sometimes serve food in heated molcajetes. Skip it, it’s just a gimmick.


Salsas all start with some combination of tomatoes, tomatillos, onions, garlic, and chiles. Some items are roasted to develop more complex flavors. All ingredients are ground in sequence in the molcajete. Oil or water can be added to loosen the salsa. Finally, dried chiles can be used to add a little BAM! as needed.

Muy Salsa

Each of the students created one of the following salsas, in order of spiciness:

  • Ranchera – Basically, fresh Pace Picante Sauce
  • Guacamole – Saucier than we typically see in the US
  • Verde – Classic, medium spicy, dark green salsa
  • Borracha – Medium spicy, dark red salsa with tequila or mezcal
  • Chipotle – Spicy, smoky, dark red salsa
  • Morita – Classic, spicy, deep red salsa

I took longer than most to prepare my salsa. It seemed I was grinding in the molcajete forever, either because of my limp-wristed execution or poor technique or because of my desire to get to a smooth end product, or all of the above.

In the end, we had a salsa party with some beer and tostada chips. All of the salsas tasted great to me, except maybe the guacamole, which I found to be too watery.

Our Hosts

I can’t say enough about our hosts, Armando and Ana. They were gracious and informative throughout the 3-hour cooking class. I would definitively recommend their Airbnb experience class and I will look into taking one of their other experiences (coffee, cacao and vanilla workshops as well as cooking classes) upon our return to the area. As a side note, if you have four people, they will open a new class if there isn’t room for you in a normally scheduled one.

Our hosts

Which salsa makes your mouth water the most?

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