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.
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.
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.
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
photo by lamejor kitchens
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
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.
olive wood mortar and pestle