A molcajete is the ultimate Latin cooking tool and can be traced back to the Pre-Columbian era.
Today it is still a fundamental part of Mexican identity and culture. The molcajete is a basic kitchen utensil in almost every Mexican home.
According to the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), the term “molcajete” comes from the Nahuatl words: mollicaxtli and temolcaxitl, meaning “mortar for salsa” or “stone mortar for mole“.
It’s pretty impressive that the seemingly antiquated molcajete hasn’t been replaced by modern kitchen appliances, like blenders, immersion blenders, or food processors.
A molcajete infuses an extraordinary flavor to salsas that is absent from the blender of food processor.
The Material Used To Make A Molcajete
Traditionally, molcajetes come from the central part of Mexico where there are vast volcanic fields – usually places like Michoacán, Guanajuato, Jalisco, Puebla, and Mexico City.
A traditional molcajete is chiseled from volcanic rock by an artisan who will spend long laborious hours. From 6 to 8 hours on just one.
This kitchen tool comes with two parts: the molcajete (molcaxitl in Nahuatl) which is the bowl piece, similar to a mortar and the tejolote (texōlōtl in Nahuatl) which is the grinding stone, similar to a pestle.
The Longevity Of The Molcajete
How long can a molcajete last? It can easily outlive several blenders in your kitchen.
It can even outlive the person who owns one and is usually passed down to the next generation.
Cooking With A Molcajete
There are several advantages to using this centuries old kitchen tool, when preparing food.
This can include making guacamole, pesto sauce, sweet red pepper sauce, salsa, enchilada sauce and even a chipotle sauce.
The pestle or tejolote is heavy and typically made from the same material as the mortar or molcajete.
Pressing and grinding ingredients with a heavy pestle against the rough surface of a molcajete helps to crush ingredients completely.
A mortar or molcajete comes in handy when turning a firm avocado into guacamole or pulverizing a chili pepper into a salsa or a sauce.
Mexican food is flavorful not only for the ingredients used but also in the way it is prepared.
Using a molcajete or mortar can extract flavor when applying force with the pestle.
Crushing ingredients like chilies, whole cloves of garlic, onion and cilantro among others releases the essential oils of the ingredients you are processing which adds depth of flavor to your food.
On the other hand, preparing food in a blender chops the food instead of grinding it which releases less flavor and gives it a different texture.
The mortar is hand carved in a concave shape making it easy to crush and grind spices, grains and vegetables in small quantities.
A molcajete is capable of grinding spices like cumin seeds, peppercorns, cinnamon sticks, cloves, allspice and so much more.
A Small Wooden Mortar & Pestle Used To Crush Cumin Seeds
It can even be used to turn ginger, turmeric, lemongrass, garlic and cilantro leaves, among others into a paste.
A Piece Of Ginger Crushed Into A Tablespoon Of Paste
A knife or blender will plainly and naturally do what it was made for, to chop up food.
A molcajete on the other hand, helps to control the process of achieving the desired consistency of a dish you are preparing.
With pestle in hand, you can control the pressure used in crushing and stopping at the exact moment you achieve the desired consistency.
Passing Flavors From One Dish To The Next
If you are using a molcajete made from volcanic rock, it will be porous by nature.
Because it is so porous, it is difficult to clean and therefore, tiny bits of flavor that linger in the nooks and crannies season the next dish made in the stone molcajete.
A Mortar and Pestle Made Of Granite
If you use a marble or granite mortar (both have a smooth surface) you may not have the same ability to retain flavors from one prepared dish to the next.
Now that you have seen the advantages of using a mortar and pestle, let’s see how to prepare it for first time use, including his to clean it and use it.
Preparing A Molcajete For First Time Use
A never used molcajete needs to be cured before using it. You need to scrub off any excess debris and sediment from inside the mortar.
Basalt molcajetes can crumble due to the composition of the natural volcanic stone.
Smooth the inside by placing coarse rock salt or white rice inside the mortar and grinding it with the pestle.
The salt or rice will turn grey. Repeat this process until it no longer becomes discolored. Then, simply rinse, allow to air dry and it is ready for use.
How to Clean a Molcajete
The best way to clean a molcajete, is hand washing it under warm water. But do not use soap of any kind, as the grooves of the volcanic stone can trap soapy residue.
It would be best to use a kitchen brush to scrub any food that gets caught in the grooves of the lava stone mortar and tejolote.
Wipe away excess water from the surface and let the molcajete air dry. Do not store it until it is completely dried.
Using A Molcajete
Whether you are preparing a Mexican salsa or a pesto sauce, there are a few basic steps you should know when using a molcajete.
Chop the ingredients into smaller pieces first, then add the chopped pieces bit by bit instead of all at once.
This will help make processing easier and gives your food a more uniformed texture. The finer you chop the ingredients before adding them the smoother your food will be.
The indigenous people of Mexico incorporated all the foods brought by the Spanish into tacos, stews and tamales which we now consider typical Mexican cuisine today.
Now that you have learned some basics about using a molcajete:
- Preparing it for first time use
- How to clean it
- The advantages of using one
Try preparing these easy to make recipes.
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