Real Volcanic Rock or Cheap Cement - How Do I Know My Molcajete is a Real Deal?
Sometimes, you will get a straight answer from your salesperson that the molcajete or metate was made of cement and it may save you a lot of detective work. But if they claim it’s a real, volcanic stone piece, here are the 7 important tips for choosing a new metate or a molcajete that we learned from the experts - the master carvers from Jalisco who know their business.
Pores are Good, but Not Too Many
The surface of any volcanic rock will contain some pores. The pores’ origin goes all way back to the moment that rock was still lava cooling off and passing tiny sulfuric bubbles to its surface. Some will have a lot of pores, wide and densely populated, others may have tiny, very fine orifices, but they’ll all show some of that rugged, porous surface that is so characteristic for the volcanic stone, that adds to its effectiveness for the grinding work. No pores (perfectly smooth surface) usually means no good.
However, beware of the following: the volcanic rock with many pores can leak. While it's a practical feature for a water filter, it's not a good thing for a molcajete, as your salsa will loose all its liquid this way. Some smaller pores can be closed during the preparation process, with rice, but if you notice strong leakage, that molcajete should be used for grinding dry items or guacamole only. .
Good Molcajete holds Water
If you leave some water at the bottom of your real, good, volcanic stone molcajete, you will find it there 10 minutes later. If you perform this test on a cement or masonry mortar molcajete, the cement will absorb water and you will see it reduced in quantity or gone, and the piece will be completelly, evenly soaked. However, some real volcanic stone pieces, made of the volcanic rock with many pores, can leak too. While it may still a piece made of the authentic lava rock, it won't be a good option for salsa making, as the liquid will filter through the pores and run out.
There may be some volcanic stone molcajetes that only show tiny leakage spots on the bottom. That should be easily fixed with the preparation process and some rice.
Get the Knife Out
Try to scratch the surface of the suspicious molcajete or a metate with a knife (or if you are regular folk who don’t carry a knife around every time they go to a market, a sharp key would do). If there is a deep scratch left, it’s not a volcanic stone piece. Please don’t confuse it with a possible white, dusty trace you may notice on a real volcanic stone after scratching it.
Careful about the Color
The direction regarding color isn’t that straightforward – there is no simple instruction to share here that will resolve it. We found several videos and articles simplifying this to the “black is good, gray is bad”, but it’s not that simple, and here is why…
First, there are many different kinds of volcanic, or lava rock. Different regions of Mexico where molcajetes and metates are made use their own, local rock mines, and the types and colors of those stones will vary. Some will be darker; some will be lighter. The color can go from gray to black but be suspicious about the pieces that are too light, they are probably made of a cement mixture.
Second, the brand-new volcanic rock pieces will have traces of chisel and other tools on their surface, and the remains of dust may produce an effect that the piece is lighter than the dark, porous volcanic rock we’re looking for. That effect will wear out after the molcajete preparation and a few uses, and it will get its familiar permanent, dark tone. Make sure you differentiate the superficial dust and chisel remains from the light color of the whole piece.
Third, some shady salesmen paint their molcajetes black to appear more “real”. That color will start wearing off with the first couple of grinds, and if you start seeing your new black molcajete becoming lighter, it’s time to take it back to whomever sold it to you, asking for a refund. But be aware that if you find a very, very black piece in the market, you should use other methods to confirm its authenticity and not rely only on color.
Dirt Cheap Giveaway
If you see a molcajete that’s much cheaper than similar sized and shaped pieces on the same market, walk away. However, a high price doesn’t mean it’s a real deal - many molcajetes are sold at the same price as real, authentic pieces, so a high price shouldn’t be the final criterion.
Follow the Scent
Press the pestle or hand against the molcajete/metate and make a few grinding movements. If either the mortar or the pestle smell like cement, or wet masonry mortar, it’s a dead giveaway of the counterfeit origin.
There is also another sign that your piece is authentic – if you detect a very light sulfuric scent during the molcajete/metate preparation, it means you have a real volcanic rock piece in your hands, as those are the remains of the sulfuric gas that was trapped in stone for centuries and is now being released. However, consider that even some real volcanic rock molcajetes won’t release any sulfuric remains if they were washed thoroughly in the workshop, or they have been made some time ago.
Uneven is Good, But Not Crucial
Molcajetes, metates and other authentic volcanic stone pieces are still traditionally made by carving the pieces of rock by hand and some basic tools. The artisans are incredibly skilled, but their pieces will always show they were made by hand and not in a mold. You can see this very easily if you compare various pieces in the store – there will be small variations in size, diameter, height, details. If you turn the piece upside down – the asymmetrical legs will usually reveal the secret.
However, this doesn’t mean that all beautifully made molcajetes, with ornaments and stylish details are fake. The artisans in San Lucas Evangelista, Comonfort and San Sebastian el Seco in Mexico have been winning awards for decades for their exceptional design and attention to detail, and their molcajetes are a work of art. Gorgeous and authentic, made from the real rock with talent and exceptional experience.
Cherish pieces like these, they are not found easily.
All the pieces sold in our Mexico 1492 Shop are made of real, volcanic rock, carved by the Lomelí family of many times awarded, master carvers from San Lucas Evangelista, Jalisco, as well as by the various artisans from the state of Puebla. You can buy them here.