“Why do you have that many mortars and pestles?” is a question I hear whenever someone comes to my home for the first time. Clearly, my particular appreciation for mortars and pestles is not understood by all. But I love them. I love them for their beauty, which I think is matched by very few other cooking tools. I love them for their history, which one could argue fairly convincingly is older than any other cooking technology, including fire (I’d wager early hominids were smashing things between rocks before they figured out flames or how to chip stones into cutting implements). And I love them for their continued culinary relevance: Pulverizing foods with a shearing force creates different textures and releases more flavors than a knife, blender, or food processor can.
For regular readers of Serious Eats, my fixation on mortars and pestles is not news. I’ve gone deep on them before, and have spent more than one sweaty afternoon pounding away, all in an effort to show that not all mortars and pestles are good for all tasks. They are, really and truly, task- and cuisine-specific. I’ve demonstrated how an (admittedly very expensive) Mediterranean marble mortar with a broad wooden pestle makes far better pesto than its peers; how a rock-solid Thai granite mortar with a matched granite pestle excels at breaking down the tough and fibrous ingredients needed for curry pastes; and how the porcelain apothecary mortars and pestles sold by far too many cookware stores aren’t good for a damned thing.
The one type of mortar and pestle I’ve shied away from endorsing as emphatically as it deserves is a Mexican molcajete. The biggest hurdle, for me, was finding a source that I could recommend with confidence. From everything I’ve heard, finding a legitimate molcajete made from actual basalt (a type of volcanic rock) and not a concrete imposter can be difficult. Without the certainty that any given product is the real thing, I preferred not to be too vocal of a proponent.
That changed several months ago when Masienda, an LA-based company specializing in Mexican corn, masa harina, and other artisan products, began selling a molcajete with a pedigree that makes me much more comfortable standing by it. This is the first molcajete I’ve seen where the vendor is transparent about their connection to the specific craftsperson making the tool, and identifies him (his name is Don Enrique of San Salvador El Seco, Puebla, and he’s been making molcajetes since he was 13, according to their website). I’ve never desired such a clear story of origin for any other mortar and pestle, but then again, as far as I know, most others aren’t plagued by a sea of concrete fakes.
I’ve now been using Masienda’s molcajete for a few months, ever since they sent me one to try out, and it’s been great. Molcajetes combine two really nice features that make them versatile beyond Mexican food alone. First, they’re hard like a Thai granite mortar and pestle, making them powerful smashers of even tough foods. Second, they’re textured, thanks to hundreds of tiny natural holes in the basalt, which results in a surface that produces more friction, and hence grinding power. It’s a little like a granite mortar and pestle and suribachi rolled into one.
As a result, the molcajete is adept at everything from grinding dried and fresh chiles to turning onion and garlic into a juicy puree, paving the way for complex and aromatic salsas. It smashes avocado with aplomb, producing one of the easiest and tastiest guacamoles around. It has the potential to be one of the better picks for an all-purpose mortar and pestle, rivaling our favorite granite model.
This molcajete is heavier than most I’ve seen, with a substantial body. That’s a plus as far as it sitting still while you pound is concerned, but it may be too heavy for anyone with strength or mobility challenges. And, as with all mortars and pestles, using it requires having the ability to do the physical task of manually crushing foods, which isn’t easy or possible for all.
Ultimately, Masienda’s molcajete is a more-than-welcome addition to the mortar and pestle landscape here in the States, and is by far the best option I’m aware of for anyone interested in owning one but wary of getting a lump of concrete.
How do you season a molcajete?
Volcanic rock can shed a fine powder when it’s new, so it’s best to put the molcajete through an (admittedly slightly annoying) seasoning process to clean it up before you begin using it for food. To do so, add a small amount of dried rice or corn to the molcajete and grind it to as fine a powder as you can manage, making sure to work the grain all over the inside of the molcajete. It will likely take on a dirty appearance as fine bits of stone slough off into the grain. Discard the grain, rinse off the molcajete, and then repeat until you either give up in exasperation or the grain remains clean (preferably the latter, but I’ll admit to maybe having quit a little prematurely when seasoning mine).
According to Mexican food authority, cookbook author, and restaurateur Zarela Martinez, one of the appeals of a molcajete is the earthy flavor it imparts to food: “The smell of rain when it hits dry soil—that’s the thing you want,” she told me in a recent interview. “The molcajete has its own character.” Martinez also explained that with enough use and time, the molcajete’s interior smooths out, a desirable quality. When this happens, the molcajete is described as “amansado” in Spanish, which means broken-in.
Can I use a molcajete for anything?
Well, define “anything.” Seriously, though, a molcajete is an incredibly versatile type or mortar and pestle, as good at grinding up spices as it is pureeing fresh and dried chiles and aromatics like onions, and smashing tender ingredients like avocado and boiled tomatillos. According to Martinez, though, many families own two molcajetes: one for grinding spices, the other for salsas and guacamole, in an effort to avoid the flavors of ground spices tainting a batch of salsa. (We think you could get away with using a small marble mortar and pestle for the spices, and save yourself the expense of two molcajetes, though.)
What’s the best way to wash a molcajete?
Because of their semi-porous structure, molcajetes and their tejolotes (what’s that? see below!) can retain food residue more easily, making washing especially important. Don’t be afraid to wash yours very well with a strong spray of water, and even a judicious application of soap (but please, please, rinse it thoroughly, otherwise you’ll be tasting soap instead of the last batch of salsa…jury’s out on which is worse).
You can also buy a small bristly brush, sold in Mexican markets, to scrub out the molcajete and get into any little pockets where food might be hiding.
If molcajete is the word for the mortar, what’s the pestle called?
The word for the cudgel-like pestle is tejolote.