Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Basics: A Molcajete

There are few things that are as indispensable to making Mexican food as the molcajete (mortar) and the tejolote (pestle). If you do not have a molcajete, you can buy one at most places that sell cookware, including Bed, Bath, and Beyond, Williams-Sonoma, and Crate and Barrel. They may not have them on hand, but they can order them for you. These stores will also have different kinds of mortars and pestles, such as ceramic and stainless steel.

I know some people just read that and screamed, Sacrilege! I only mention these locales because not everyone may be able to travel to Mexico, have access to a local merchant, or can travel a short ways to get to a mercado where merchants sell what is commonly known as the traditional molcajete. These molcajetes are made from lava rock, stand on three legs, and sometimes have an animal (e.g., pig) head carved on them. They are sold in a set with the tejolote and are coarse and gritty when brand new.

my molcajete, side view

If you have to purchase a molcajete brand new, you need to understand that you can not immediately use it. You'll have to "cure" it before use. The reason is that the grinding of the tejolote against the molcajete softens the surface, but in doing so, pieces of the lava come off. So if you use it before curing it, all the food you prepare will be gritty with ground pieces of the molcajete. I recommend curing it before use.

The molcajete I own I've had for more than a decade, and I don't recall how I cured it. Some molcajetes come with instructions for how to cure it, and if you do a search for molcajetes or curing molcajetes, you will find a variety of different ways (including power washing and wire brushes). I recommend simply using dry rice. 

my molcajete, top view

I won't lie, learning how to use the tejolote to grind and mash is an acquired art. You can not simply put something in the molcajete and start pounding away at it because you'll soon find yourself, your counters, and your floors covered in what is supposed to be in your molcajete. The best advice I can give you is to begin with grinding, not pummeling mercilessly, at the contents of your molcajete.

First rinse both the molcajete and tejolote with water. You will find that some grit may be removed, but there is more to do. The next step is the rice; grind about 1/4 cup of white rice in your new molcajete. You use the round, thick portion of the tejolote, not the skinny end. The rice will turn gray as pieces of the molcajete are ground off. Grind until the rice has become almost a "flour." Empty the molcajete and add another 1/4 cup of white rice, grinding the rice down until it is a flour; at this point the flour may still be gray but not as dark as before. Repeat adding rice and grinding down until the rice no longer turns gray and the rice flour is white. This process takes time, and if you decide to do it all in one day, your arms will be sore. But you will start to master the movement that goes with properly using your molcajete when it comes time to cook. This is something that no wire brush or power washer can teach you.

An important note about caring for your molcajete. Never, and I mean never, use soap on your molcajete. The lava rock is porous and so it will absorb anything that you put in it, including soap. Always rinse your molcajete with hot water after every use and let it air-dry. That is all the care it requires. Yes, finally a dish you don't have to wash! 

After repeated use, the flavors of the molcajete are much richer and deeper because of its porous nature. This is why I recommend using a traditional molcajete instead of a ceramic or stainless steel one, in which the flavors are washed away after every use. The molcajete is truly one of the secrets of good Mexican food.

If you're one of the lucky ones, your grandmother or mother gave you their well-seasoned molcajete so you don't have to go through this process. I think I've decided just today to buy my children their own molcajetes so that when they go off on their own as adults, their molcajetes will be ready for use, plus I could use some help in the kitchen.

If you have any questions or have a different way of curing molcajetes, let me know.

¡Hasta la proxíma vez!

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