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What Is a Molcajete?
In Mexican cooking, a molcajete is a pre-Hispanic mortar and pestle made from volcanic stone. Molcajetes have two pieces: the basin/mortar and the tejolote, or grinder/pestle. Ingredients are ground by pressing and twisting with the tejolote, an action that releases the essential oils of the foods and adds depth of flavor. New molcajetes should be “cured” by grinding uncooked rice or rock salt in the basin to smooth out the interior and remove any grit.
5 Advantages of Using a Molcajete
When it comes to countertop cooking tools, the molcajete comes in handy for any number of recipes. Even if a cookbook calls for a more modern appliance, there are advantages to preparing foods in a handcrafted molcajete. There are plenty of reasons to use a molcajete:
- To pulverize ingredients thoroughly. Pressing and grinding ingredients with a heavy tejolote against the rough surface of the molcajete stone bowl helps to crush ingredients completely. A heavy pestle comes in handy when turning a firm avocado into creamy guacamole or pulverizing a habanero pepper into salsa.
- To extract every flavor out of your ingredients. Mexican food is flavorful in part because of how it is prepared. Using tools like a molcajete, every flavor can be extracted out of an ingredient and released into the dish. By crushing ingredients—like jalapeños, poblano peppers, or cloves of garlic—instead of blending them, you can release the enzymes, oils, juices, and flavors in ingredients.
- To control the consistency of your dish. With a molcajete, you can control the process to achieve the desired consistency of the dish you’re preparing. A blender or knife will simply chop food up. With a molcajete, you can control the pressure of every press and stop at the exact moment you achieve the desired consistency.
- To grind spices. A molcajete is capable of grinding spices like cumin seeds and peppercorns.
- To carry flavor over from one dish to the next. The porous nature of a molcajete made from volcanic rock makes it almost impossible to clean—but this has its advantages. Those tiny bits of flavor that linger in the nooks and crannies season the next dish made in the stone molcajete. A marble mortar or granite mortar are smoother and might not have the same ability to retain flavors from one preparation to the next.
How to Prepare a Molcajete for Use
Before you use a new molcajete for the first time, it needs to be cured—i.e. scrubbed of excess debris and sediment from inside the mortar. Basalt molcajetes can crumble due to the composition of the natural volcanic stone. Smooth out 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. The molcajete is ready to use.
How to Use a Molcajete
Whether you’re whipping up some Mexican food or just need to prepare pesto sauce for a pasta dish, there are a few basic steps to using a molcajete:
- Chop the ingredients first. Before putting your larger fresh ingredients, like peppers, in a molcajete, cut them into smaller pieces. This makes them easier to handle in the molcajete mortar. Add the ingredients bit by bit instead of all at once.
- Put on the pressure. Using handheld power, push down on the tejolote. As you press down, twist the tejolote, pulverizing the ingredients against the sharp grinding surface of the lava rock.
- Use the molcajete bowl as a warmer. A molcajete can also be used as a serving dish. Due to its ability to retain heat, the Mexican mortar can keep a dish warm on the table.
How to Clean a Molcajete
To clean a molcajete, hand wash it under warm water. Don’t use soap, as the grooves of the stone can trap soapy residue. Use a kitchen brush to scrub any food that gets caught in the grooves of the lava stone mortar and tejolote. Wipe excess water off of the surface and let the molcajete air dry. Make sure it is completely dry before you put it away.
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