Culinary Tip: The Molcajete

Included in your group of Mexican cooking tools is the molcajete. The word molcajete comes from the word molcaxitl in the ancient Náhuatl language which means “a wide bowl for salsas.” With the molcajete is the “la piedra” or stone which is used for grinding and crushing. The bowl and crushing rock are made of volcanic rock, the same way that they have been made for centuries and are used to crush and shred seeds and vegetables. To make a truly rich and delicious salsa, Mexicans swear by the process of making the salsa with the molcajete.

Before a molcajete can be used it must first be “cured.” To cure the molcajete it is best to grind a handful of wet, raw rice until the molcajete is smooth on the roughest edges of the bowl and the rice no longer comes out dirty. This is necessary sometimes because there may be loose pieces of volcanic rock in the grains of your molcajete or rough edges that should be smoothed out. When choosing a molcajete it is always better to choose one that is relatively smooth and doesn’t have extremely large grains or rough edges.

When grinding with the stone put the smallest end in your palm and spread your fingers out around the rest of the stone leaving the larger end free to do the grinding. Your fingers should be parallel to the length of the stone. Never wrap your fingers together around the stone as you may grind your knuckles against the side of the molcajete. Keep your wrist loose to allow you to rotate the stone easily around the bowl while exerting even pressure from your palm. Always start with the tough stuff or hard materials first then add in the softer and juicier stuff.
With the invention of the food processor and blenders, salsas have been modernized and quickened but not necessarily improved. What the molcajete and stone do is grind instead of cut like the processor. A chunky salsa of toasted jalapenos, tomatoes, and garlic comes out much clearer in flavor, more beautifully textured, and tastier than a salsa pulverized in the processor. This is because the flavors are squeezed out in the molcajete, allowing the flavors to intermix freely while maintaining the chunky nature of a good salsa. The processor tends to turn out more pulp and less real intermingling of flavors. If you must use the processor, gently pulse the machine instead of a letting it run continuously.

With salsa involving dried chiles, it can be very difficult to use the molcajete and a processor can be used. Dried chile skins are hard to grind since they don’t have liquid and can be cut up in the processor without sacrificing flavor.

On the bottom line, if you have a molcajete available it is well worth the effort to use it. It is fun, a good exercise, and generally adds great aroma and flavor to your Mexican dishes

Inspired by Chef Anna Garcia La Villa Bonita

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