Every Mexican can tell you that salsa made in a molcajete tastes indescribably better than any salsa made in a blender. Believe them, they know.
Molcajete, a traditional Mexican mortar and pestle made of volcanic stone, is one of the most emblematic kitchen utensils in Mexico. In use since the pre-Columbian times by Aztecs, Maya, Toltecs, Purépecha, Zapotecs... it was a must have in every household, and it continues to be one today.
Unlike a metate (the horizontal grindstone for dry foods), molcajete is mainly used for salsas, guacamoles and other liquid delicacies. However, before you launch yourself into your first salsa, your molcajete must be properly prepared. Here are the essential steps to follow. The good news is, you’ll need to do this only once…
Step 1 - Choose the Right One
First, the material: always choose a molcajete made of the authentic volcanic stone, versus cheaper cement versions. There are several types of the volcanic stone used in different regions of Mexico (Jalisco, Guanajuato, Puebla – all have different volcanic stone mines and rock variations), so even the real volcanic stone can vary in color or finish, but you can learn how to differentiate the two in an article we will publish soon in our blog. The cement molcajetes can look real nice as flowerpots, but they can never work properly for food preparation because they will forever crumble and release the small stones into your food.
Then, the size: if you cook for one or two people and never entertain, don’t go for a large molcajete – it will be a pain to ship, prepare and wash, and you won’t need it. The mini molcajetes (about 10 cm / 4” in diameter) are perfect for amounts of salsa you’ll need for one or two people, and if you like serving several salsas with your food, smaller molcajetes will make much more sense and can coexist on your table without making it crowded. Medium sized molcajetes (15-17 cm / 6-7”) are perfect for a guacamole for two, or salsa for a party of four to six.
Step 2 - A Good Wash
Place a kitchen towel in a sink to prevent scratches and place the molcajete on it.
Wash your molcajete and its pestle (tejolote) thoroughly with dish soap and running water, first using a regular dish sponge or a fiber, and then, while still covered with foam, clean it thoroughly with a brush, covering interior, exterior and all the edges, in order to remove all dust and small lose stones hiding in the volcanic stone pores. The pores are what makes your molcajete so efficient, but they need to be properly cleaned with a brush first. All our molcajetes and metates come with a gift for that purpose – a traditional brush made of roots, used specifically for volcanic stone cleaning. Soap it up and go at it.
Rinse and repeat for as long as you are seeing gray-colored foam.
Step 3 – Immerse in Water, Upside Down
Fill your sink with water, leave the kitchen towel on the bottom and place your molcajete upside down, submerging it completely in water for at least 20 minutes. Make sure you get rid of the air bubble that can get trapped underneath the molcajete curve. Leave the tejolote (pestle) submerged in water as well.
After a while, the water will loosen up the remaining dust and small pieces of volcanic stone from the surface. After you pull the molcajete out, you will be able to see that dust layer on the towel.
Rinse. And get ready for the tough part.
Step 4 – Dry Rice Grind
At this point, the surface of your molcajete is rough like a sandpaper. We need to have a few rounds of dry, white rice grinding in order to break and scoop any minuscule bump, lump and bulge on the surface of your molcajete. This won’t be easy, as dry, uncooked rice is hard to grind, but that same feature makes it a great material for this task. Some experts recommend using the dry white corn for this first step – if you have it, you can use it, but know it will be even harder to grind than rice. After the first round with the dry corn, you should do the following rounds with rice.
Work with a spoonful or two of rice at a time. Grind it against the bottom and all sides of the molcajete bowl, using all sides of the tejolote (pestle), because you are preparing that piece as well. Grind the rice firmly, in circular motions, pressing it against the molcajete. Never hit your molcajete directly with the pestle (tejolote), it may damage it.
You will notice that the rice powder from the first round is grayish – that tells you that you managed to remove a good portion of the loose small stones – Good Job! Discard that rice powder, dust off the molcajete and its hand from the powder remains using the roots brush, pour another batch of rise and repeat until the rice powder comes out white.
Step 5 – Salt Grain Grind
Finer than dry rice but still very abrasive, grained salt will help us make our molcajete and its hand surface even smoother.
Place a spoonful or two of white, grained salt, and start grinding. The first round may be gray (and the whiter the salt, the easier it will be to notice that). Just like with the rice, discard, brush off and repeat until you see the ground salt is coming out white as snow.
Step 6 – Moist Rice Grind
Place a spoonful or two of rice in a little bit of water (enough to cover it up) in your molcajete and leave it for 20 min. The moist rice is soft, and it will be easier to grind than its dry counterpart. Grind it against the bottom and all the sides until you see it become rice milk, with some smooth rice paste on the walls of the molcajete.
If you still see minuscule gray dust, discard, brush off, rinse and repeat.
If the steps 4 and 5 were done well, step 6 should show positive results fast. If the gray dust keeps coming out after several repetitions, and you are certain you did a good job with several rounds of dry rice and salt, I’m afraid that the molcajete you have in your hands may be made of cement or masonry mortar. In that case, you got yourself a nice pot for a succulent, but we don’t recommend you ever prepare food in it (unless you are prepared to eat mortar fragments). Get a real volcanic stone molcajete from our Mexico 1492 shop and start again.
Important to know:
The volcanic stone, as smooth as can be, will have a porous surface forever and it will absorb flavors and aromas for as long as you have it. That’s actually a good thing when it comes to salsa making. A good molcajete will add to the flavor and aroma of whatever you’re making in it. In time, the flavors of chili, onion, garlic, tomato and spices will sink in and offer the perfect base for the new salsas or guacamole.
However, if you want to use your molcajete to grind something different in nature, like vanilla beans with sugar, cocoa beans, medicinal herbs or dye pigments, you need a separate molcajete for that. But if salsa and guacamole are your thing, we need to do this…
Final Step – Heavenly Garlic and Oil Base for your Future Molcajete Delicacies
The step that will make your molcajete the ultimate, most delicious salsa and guacamole maker…
Peel 3 to 4 fresh garlic cloves and place them in your molcajete with a spoonful of oil. Grind them against the bottom and all the sides, until they become paste.
Wash, leave to dry.
You’re ready. Go make something awesome and sweep everybody off their feet.