“Show-stoppingly beautiful,” Roberto Santibañez writes in his cookbook, Truly Mexican. “It’s like water. It has to be in the kitchen always,” Chef Denisse Lina Chavez says. “A way to connect with the earth and the energy of those before you,” Chef Claudette Zepeda says, bringing home the importance of molcajetes in Mexican cuisine.
A stone mortar and pestle traditionally used in the preparation of salsa, guacamole and many other foods—and not to be confused with a metate, which one uses to grind grains like corn and rice—the essential element of the Mexican kitchen improves with time. Here’s your 101 on why you need a molcajete right now.
“Some archeological discoveries indicate that ceramic bowls were popular in pre-Columbian times,” Gastro-Obscura reports. The “molcajete” is the bowl of the instrument, and “tejolete” is the name for the pestle. “The word molcajete comes from the Nahuatl word molcaxitl,” according to the USA Institute of Texan Cultures. Common in Mesoamerica centuries before the Europeans arrived, according to Gastro Obscura, the most basic design typically featured three short legs, “while some particularly ornate molcajetes feature sculpted faces and resemble squat little animals. Decorative molcajetes have been discovered in ancient burial sites along with other articles of daily life.”
Place in Mexican Culture
It’s not uncommon for a molcajete to be handed down through the generations in a Mexican home. “Utilizing a molcajete when appropriate is important for me in my kitchen, says Mexican-American Chef Claudette Zepeda. It “reminds me why I chose to go all in with my country and culture,” she muses. “It takes technique and practice to really get the hang of it—some think it’s about beating stone against stone—but I see it as using all the elements to yield a beautiful salsa or marinade.” Claudette’s molcajete is a family heirloom, hand-carved by a family friend for her mother for her wedding day. Mexicans commonly use them to make salsas, guacamole, and sauces. Claudette also uses hers to make charred vegetable table salsas, vinaigrettes and salsas containing whole spices.
How to Buy and Use
When selecting a molcajete, Roberto Santibañez suggests in his book, “If you’re lucky enough to find a relatively smooth, grit-free, charcoal molcajete made entirely of high-quality volcanic rock, buy it immediately.” (Ahem: Ours is!) “If you can only find the light-colored, white-speckled ones sold throughout the United States,” he warns, go with marble. We hand-carve our molcajete using a single piece of basalt (volcanic rock), so each set is unique. As for use, as Claudette explains it fairly simply: “You have to go with the stone instead of against it.”
Care and Maintenance
Claudette (and most other Mexican chefs) strongly suggest you season your molcajete before use. “If the seasoning is “too much,” says Claudette, “I’d rethink using one: There’s no such thing as fast food when you are using primitive tools; those are all most rural villages use to make moles and salsas.” (Incidentally, she adds, “I also wouldn’t challenge any of those women to an arm wrestling contest!”)
Seasoning ensures no loose stones end up in your food, says Claudette. Here’s how she does it:
- Soak the molcajete overnight (and “Tejolote” or pestle).
- Grind 1/2 cup dry corn with the pestle, grinding the corn in a circular motion and moving up the sides of the molcajete bowl, discarding the dark grey corn powder.
- Grind 1/4 cup rice with 2 Tbsp of coarse rock salt, again in a circular motion up the sides of the bowl. You’ll see the rice turns light grey but not like the corn.
- Discard and scrub well with a bristle brush.
- Grind 1 cup of soaked rice with 1/2 cup of water. The rice should remain white.
- You are finished when the surface of the molcajete bowl and the tejolote are smooth on the working surface. After every use, Claudette recommends getting a good bristle brush and scrubbing well to get any pieces of food that get stuck.
Claudette’s steps include a few measures to ensure a smooth, clean surface. Maintain your molcajete “with a little bit of soap and some elbow grease and air dry,” she says. And although it may seem obvious, “never in the dishwasher.”
“If you want to see a Meixcan chef beam with pride, say something nice about the chef’s salsa,” Gonzalo Guzmán writes in Nopalito: A Mexican Kitchen. “Tasting one can tell you so much about a cook—perhaps even where the cook grew up in Mexico.”
Diana Kennedy, Mexican cuisine expert and cookbook author, gushes over how molcajetes can make Mexican sauces shine. In From My Mexican Kitchen: Techniques and Ingredients, she writes, “The qualities of a sauce prepared in the molcajete are incomparable. The flavors extracted from the ingredients crushed against the abrasive surface of the rock are more intense compared to those cut, however finely, with the blades of a blender.
So make salsa, sauces, guacamole, and vinaigrettes in there. (It does great work with garlic!) Don’t hesitate to break out your molcajete to grind spices. (You can buy a smaller one for just this function.) Care for it well and it can last a lifetime. Happy cooking!