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Molcajete Musings

Published Aug 4, 2008 - (Updated Dec 5, 2012)

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Featured in Vallarta Lifestyles Magazine, Summer/Fall 2008 issue.

It sounded so easy! “Just soak the molcajete in water for 24 hours, scrub it clean, grind some rice until it doesn’t turn gray, and you’ll be ready to make the most delicious salsa in all of Mexico!” Glancing down at my naked ring finger and deducing I was single, the jovial vendor who sold me my molcajete in Guadalajara’s main market, Mercado Libertad, added with a wink, “ en you’ll find yourself a good Mexican husband, maybe even me!”

Traditional molcajetes (mortars) are threelegged bowls carved out of lava rock (black basalt) that are used with a tejolote (pestle) for grinding dry ingredients to make traditional Mexican salsas. Basalt is found naturally in Jalisco and the highlands of central Mexico. The darker the rock, the better, as molcajetes made from the lighter varieties may be too crumbly to season properly. Certain styles of molcajetes have the head of a pig or bull carved into them, but I opted for the classic headless model.

When referring to molcajetes, seasoning means grinding down and smoothing the entire interior surface to ensure that little bits of grit don’t end up in your food. However, a small number of culinary artists believe that seasoning isn’t necessary: Simply wipe your molcajete out with a damp cloth and use it. The particles of basalt in your first few salsas will simply add more fiber and substance to your creations, but watch your teeth.

The first step of the traditional seasoning process is to soak the molcajete in water for anywhere from four to 24 hours, and then let it air dry. Some people believe in fast tracking the process by rubbing the molcajete with a stiff metal brush to smooth it out quickly. However, the majority of sources feel it is essential to grind handfuls of rice in the molcajete with the tejolote to smooth out the interior surface, although there was a difference of opinion as to whether the rice should be wet or dry. This exhaustive process can take up to 60 minutes to grind a batch of rice into powder.

Repeat this workout until the rice stays white and does not take on any gray color from loose particles of basalt. This process could take repeated grinding sessions. Instead of rice, some people opt to grind coarse salt or dried corn, the latter said to also infuse a thin coating of oil on the surface to give it a more polished, glossy look.

The optional final step of the seasoning process is to grind a combination of pungent ingredients, such as fresh garlic, salt, cumin and chilies, into the bowl, letting the mixture sit on the entire interior surface for a few hours to season the molcajete with flavor.

Cleanup advice was unanimous. Never use soap, since the taste of detergent may infuse your future creations. Either wipe the molcajete with a damp cloth or scrub it under running water with a metal bristle brush and let it air dry.

Molcajetes are treasured family heirlooms that are often passed down from generation to generation. It took me a few laborious sessions to season mine properly, but my first batch of salsa was so great I’ve put away the blender. And the added benefit of all that rice grinding is that my strong biceps make it easier to carry home groceries for my next batch of salsa!


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