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stone mortar and pestle
molcajete: mexican mortar and pestle

Mortar and Pestle

A mortar is a bowl shaped container made of a hard wood, marble, pottery, or stone.   The pestle is a bat shaped tool that is used to grind inside the mortar (bowl) and pulverize grains, herbs, and other food substances as well as medicines.

Article by: Barbara Bowman


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Brief History of the Mortar and Pestle

A mortar is a bowl shaped container made of a hard wood, marble, pottery, or stone. The pestle is a bat shaped tool that is used to grind inside the mortar (bowl) and pulverize grains, herbs, and other food substances as well as medicines.

Italian frescoes of the 15th Century show Mortars and Pestles in use by Apothecaries (ancient Pharmacists). The Molcajete, or Mexican version of the mortar and pestle appears in Mexican pre-history in the Tehuacán Valley, as early as the discovery of our hybridized present-day corn, 6,000 years ago.

How The Mortar Is Used

Place the substance to be ground inside the mortar (bowl). Sit the pestle on top of the substance and apply downward pressure, then grind using a circular motion. This action forces the substance against the surface of the bowl and pulverizes it.

The grinding process releases the oils, and flavor essence of the substance. When done carefully you will produce a product that is more flavorful than a product prepared in a food processor. Depending on the food you are preparing the process can be quite laborious. If you enjoy cooking, using a mortar and pestle will simply be part of your "craft" of food preparation. If you just need to "get the job done", reach for the food processor.

Molcajete y Tejolote

(Pictured at the top of this page)

[mohl-kah-HEH-teh ee teh-hoh-LOH-teh]
The Mexican term for "MORTAR AND PESTLE" — molcajete being the mortar, tejolote the pestle. The black, rough texture of both pieces is a result of the fact that they're made of basalt (volcanic rock). They are used in the traditional manner for grinding spices and herbs and other mixtures. . (Definition by epicurioius.com)

According to an article by by Diego Delgado, "The word molcajete (mortar) derives from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs: “molli” (seasoning or sauce) and “caxitl” (bowl). The word tejolote (pestle) also derives from Nahuatl: “tetl” (stone) and “xolotl” (doll)."
Foods traditionally prepared in the molcajete include salsas and mole's (mohl-LAY), as well as guacamole. It is also used for grinding chilies, garlic or other herbs and spices for food preparation.

About Basalt / Lava Stone
The best quality molcajetes are made from basalt / lava stone with the lowest possible sand content. This stone can have a very fine-grain, smooth feel (see painted pig below) or a very rough-texture. The coarser textured stone (like the example at the top of this page, and the bull and pig below) is made up of basalt with granite, feldspar and quartz mixed in. This stone is hard rough and makes a good grinding surface. Read more about volcanic stone.

Inexpensive Molcajetes
You may find very inexpensive molcajetes on the web. These molcajetes have a very "rounded appearance" with pear or cone-shaped pestles. They are softer and easier to carve and thus less expensive. Unfortunately they are terribly sandy and no matter how you may try to cure them they will always be sandy. They are also typically very shallow so they don't have a very usable capacity. These pieces are fine for decoration or serving only but we don't recommend using them as a preparation or grinding tool. (Also, see our warning about fake molcajetes)


soft-stone inexpensive molcajete - image: by gourmetsleuth.com

Other Molcajete Variations

While the traditional molcajete is a simple round bowl they may also found in the shape of animals, most commonly a pig.  We recently acquired the molcajete shown in the gallery below (which we've named "Moocajete").  It is a bull and measures 16" from the tip of the nose to the edge of the bowl and it's 4 1/2" deep, 8 1/2" high and weighs 36 pounds. The tejolote is 8 1/2" long. The stone is very dark in color and finely textured and looks like granite.

Our pig (Oinkajete) we show in the gallery below is of the same type of volcanic stone as our bull.


Pig Molcajete - Both the pig and bull molcajetes show above are hand-carved, high quality stone molcajetes and they are available in our Gourmesleuth store in limited quantity. Good quality hand-carved pigs are very hard to obtain. As with all good stone molcajetes they are time consuming to produce. This is a "cottage industry". Families make the pieces and a local reseller buys them, then resells them to other small vendors.

Painted Pig, Smooth Basalt Molcajete
Smooth Basalt Painted Pig Molcajete
smooth basalt molcajete -  painted pig

Smooth Basalt Molcajetes - These caricature like pig molcajetes are made of a slightly softer basalt stone that lacks the quartz and other minerals of the "rougher" basalt stone.  This is actually the molcajete preferred by Chef Rick Bayless*.  They tend to look "cast" because of the angled carving.  The carvers use power tools to rough in the shape. This is a very common molcajete in Mexico.  You might not be crazy about the painting but it considered part of the charm of this style of molcajete and is typically done by children. 

*March / 2007 - we attended a cooking demonstration by Rick Bayless.  Rick used one of these pigs in his demonstration and prefers this style molcajete for making salsa and guacamole.  In fact, many restaurants prefer these pieces because they tend to be much deeper with a superior capacity and because they are smother they are easier to clean. 

If your primary use for your molcajete is guacamole and salsa then you may want to consider one of these deep pieces.

Beware Of Fakes
Many of the pieces available on the market today both plain and pig heads are inexpensive reproductions cast of a combination of concrete and crushed stone or a different type of non-basalt river rock. These products are very sandy or dusty and don't make good grinding mortars. Make sure to contact the vendor before you buy to make sure your molcajete is the authentic, basalt lava, hand carved Mexican molcajete.

**Update: March, 2007
Almost "exact" copies of the inexpensive molcajetes are now being made in China and distributed within the U.S. and Mexico. They are not marked in any way so if they are not sold in the boxes provided by the manufacture you will not be able to tell them from the Mexican pieces.  One slight difference is a slight "flare" to upper top rim.  See Image Of Chinese Molcajete
  1. Molcajete Pig With Compartment
    Divided Pig
    October 02, 2011
  2. Bull Molcajete
    Bull Molcajete
    October 01, 2011
  3. Pig Molcajete
    Pig Molcajete
    October 01, 2011
  4. Turkey Molcajete
    Turkey Molcajete
    October 01, 2011
  5. Rooster Molcajete
    Rooster Molcajete
    October 01, 2011

How To Season And Maintain Your Molcajete

How To Season or Prepare Your Molcajete Before Use
Seasoning is a method of preparing a porous surface to inhibit any unwanted flavors, decrease sticking or to smooth an overly rough surface.  It is necessary to season the molcajete prior to using to avoid any large grit in your food. 

1. Wash and scrub the interior of the molcajete and the tejolote with water and a stiff brush.  Let both objects air dry.  Now proceed to steps 2 and 3.  We like the combination of both methods or you may select one or the other.   This process only needs to be completed one time.


2.
Put a handful of uncooked rice in the molcajete.  Use the tejolote ( the pestle) and grind the rice into the surface of the molcajete (bowl).  Discard the pulverized rice.  Repeat the process until the pulverized rice is white, rather than gray or ash colored.  If your molcajete is "pre-seasoned" you can skip this step.

3. Add 4 cloves of garlic (peeled), 1 teaspoon of cumin (comino) and 1 teaspoon salt, kosher is good, and a teaspoon of pepper.  Grind the mixture evenly around the interior of the molcajete.  Remove and discard the mixture.  Rinse the molcajete and tejolote with clear water and allow to dry before storing.  Note that these ingredients and quantities can be adjusted to your liking and for the size of your molcajete. 

Maintenance
Simply wash the molcajete and tejolote in warm water after each use.  Don't use detergents because the soap and any perfumes may be absorbed into the stone and taint your food.   Molcajetes can be put in a dishwasher with caution.  Don't place close to fragile dinnerware.  If you want to sanitize a molcajete you can also scrub the stone well with soap and hot water then rinse and place in a 350 degree oven for about 15 to 20 minutes.  Use oven mitts to remove the molcajete from the oven and sit on a surface than can be exposed to high heat.  Allow to cool before use. 

Caution:  We have noticed several web sites and auction sellers promoting molcajetes made of a type of integral color concrete.  The surface is then painted to look like lava.  We don't recommend these products for cooking use.  They should be used for decoration only. Make sure to ask the dealer you are buying from to confirm the material your molcajete is made from.

Salsa en molcajete
Salsa in a Molcajete 
photo by lamejor kitchens

Metate y Mano

Metate y Mano
Metate y Mano

Metate y Metlapil (or Mano)
This tool is related in lineage to the molcajete. The word metate comes from the Nahuatl word metlatl.  The rolling-pin shaped grinding tool is called in Nahuatl a metlapil which means son of metate but in Spanish it is referred to as a mano.   The metate is used to grind corn and for mashing ingredients to make salsas and purees. According to Deann and Rick Bayless in their book Authentic Mexican : Regional Cooking, the metate was "The last of the techniques that set Mexican cooking apart is the grinding.  It began millennia ago with corn crushed on a rock slab (metate) to make the dough for tortillas.  The slab proved good for grinding rehydrated. chiles, for nuts and seeds, for cacao beans and even the tender curds of fresh cheese".

The traditional Aztec metate was a slanted slab with three short legs. The Mayan version sits flat on the ground with a slightly indented top grinding surface.  Metates are rarely used today and have been replaced in the home by hand corn grinders and electric blenders. 

How to Use
The metate should be seasoned prior to use using the same process used to season the molcajete. (See above). 

To use this tool place the food to be ground in the center of the metate.  Roll the mano back and forth over the food to grind it to the desired consistency. If you are using a metate that is on legs then you sit behind the metate with the high end of the metate closest to you and you grid downwards.

Read more about the metate y mano including more photos

Wooden Mortar And Pestle

The wood mortar and pestle is a less versatile tool.  It is perfect to grind seeds, grains, or salt.  Grinding foods with any moisture content should be avoided as it will eventually cause the wood to split, no matter how hard the wood is.  Despite some drawbacks they can be beautiful pieces to own and use.

pm2.jpg (23301 bytes)

olive wood mortar and pestle

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