Seasoning a New Molcajete — It’s a Grind

It’s still birthday month, and I’m looking forward to using the present Russ gave me, a new molcajete. This is the third one to come into my life. I’m not sure where the first one is, the second one, a cute little piggy shape, is now Chucha’s dog food dish, and now my third one, ample enough to grind a salsa or guacamole without spills.

Before I use it to make guacamole, it needs to be seasoned to smooth the surface and remove rock grit. According to Diana Kennedy’s book, From my Mexican Kitchen, this is done by three grindings of raw rice, each handful ground to a powder. By the third time, there should be no visible rock bits, and the ground rice should be white, not gray. If you try this, be ready for a work-out, or turn to your strong-armed mate for help as I did.

I really tried to grind the rice myself, but after ten minutes, I didn’t have much to show for my efforts and my hand and wrist were getting tired. I found Russ in the middle of his own project. After a bit of haggling, we agreed that if I made him a cup of espresso, he would grind the rice for me. It took him about three minutes to grind it to a powder, and about five minutes for me to make a cup of espresso. He thought he came out ahead.

He started out grinding on the kitchen table, but it was rocking and rolling under the exertion, so he switched to the kitchen counter for more stability. Then he smelled sulfur. He asked if the stove was on. “No.” I could smell it, too. “Are you sure you aren’t cooking something?” “No, and I haven’t even turned the expresso machine on yet.”

The smell was being given off by the volcanic rock of the molcajete! He held out the tejolote — the stone pestle —  for me to smell. The aroma of sulfur was obvious. All the more reason to give it several grindings of rice to work out the ancient aroma.

After each grinding, Mrs. Kennedy says to scrub, rinse and dry the molcajete. I bought an escobetilla for the job. This common Mexican pot scrubber is made of  fibers from an agave plant, and its tiny, stick-like ends are perfect for getting ground rice out of the porous surface. After a good scrubbing, the molcajete was put on the patio to dry.

Molcajetes are three-legged bowls carved from a solid piece of black or gray volcanic rock. Their use dates back to pre-Hispanic times, to the Mesoamerican eras of the Mayans and Aztecs. The food processor is an excellent appliance, but it can’t grind pumpkin seeds or almonds to a smooth paste the way a molcajete and tejolote can, as it is really cutting with blades, rather than grinding. My recent efforts of making torta de garbanzo and sikil pak made this shortcoming clear.

If you buy a molcajete, either at a market here in Mexico or a Mexican grocery store north of the border, look for one that is big enough to work without slopping guacamole over the edge. My new one has almost a quart (one liter) capacity. Also look for small holes, not large, in the rock surface. Mrs. Kennedy suggests cleaning it with unscented dish soap. If this product exists in Mexico, I haven’t found it yet, so I used hot water and lots of scrubbing.  After three rice grindings, three times of scrubbing and drying, the interior of the molcajete was smooth and clean, with no aroma of sulphur remaining.

When we first moved to Mexico, Russ had the illusion that I was going to pat out our tortillas by hand. He still holds up his hands to me sometimes, imitating the patting motion, hoping I’ll get the message and be a good Mexican esposa. I guess now he thinks I’ll be making all our salsas in the molcajete. I can’t disappoint him again.

Notes:

  • Like so many other words used in Mexican Spanish, the word molcajete is from the Aztec Nahuatl language, mulcazitl being the original.
  • A molcajete should be carved out of a single piece of basalt. Cheap ones are made of concrete with bits of basalt added. Often, an animal head will decorate the bowl, pig head motifs being common in central Mexico.
  • Molcajetes can be used as a serving dish or heated to a high temperature and then used to cook food.
  • Some Mexican cooks think that a molcajete adds a subtle flavor to a salsa or guacamole.


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  1. #1 by Karen on March 31, 2011 - 10:08 am

    Wonderful, informative, and your helper did a great job!!

  2. #3 by Kim on March 31, 2011 - 10:09 am

    Where did you find your molcajete? I’ve looked at local markets close to where I live and the molcajetes are not great. I guess because I’m a gringa they think I’ll buy anything and that I don’t live here. Any advice would be appreciated!

    • #4 by Cooking in Mexico on March 31, 2011 - 10:26 am

      Kim, I assume you live in Mexico. We bought ours at our local weekly street market, known as the tianguis. Look for small holes in the surface, check that the bowl is level, that the legs or edges aren’t chipped. Perhaps you could ask a Mexican friend to help you find one.

      • #5 by Kim on March 31, 2011 - 10:30 am

        Yes, I live in the DF. The molcajetes I’ve seen are usually light grey with no holes. I’m guessing they’ve mixed stones to get the smooth surface. I really want one that is authentic volcanic rock. I’ll keep searching! By the way, I’m so glad I found your blog! Please keep posting!

        • #6 by Cooking in Mexico on March 31, 2011 - 10:32 am

          I think there has to be some holes, if it is volcanic rock, the traditional material for making molcajetes. I have read that some are made of cement — you don’t want that. Find a market that is frequented by local residents, not gringos, and hopefully you can find the real thing. I’m glad you found Cooking in Mexico, too.

        • #7 by Lesley on March 31, 2011 - 5:33 pm

          Hi Kim: Mercado Merced sells molcajetes in their “paso al desnivel” — it’s a little underground area in the main market building. Just ask anyone in the main market building how to get there and they’ll direct you. They’re light-gray rock, not too porous, but they definitely have holes. You can also try Mercado Medellín the Roma, in the back area. Hope that helps!

        • #8 by Lesley on March 31, 2011 - 5:36 pm

          You can also try Mercado Sonora, which is across from Merced. Some of my classmates at school bought their molcajetes there.

          • #9 by Kim on March 31, 2011 - 5:49 pm

            Thanks for all the tips. I have no idea where all of the mercados are located. I guess it’s time to explore the city!

  3. #10 by Paolita on March 31, 2011 - 12:12 pm

    This is so neat, I got one (from PV of all places) in my kitchen and have used it without treating it first. Can you believe I didn’t know…… I will try a handful of rice before my next guacamole. Thanks for the good info.

    • #11 by Cooking in Mexico on March 31, 2011 - 12:18 pm

      If you have used it a lot, it may be seasoned by now by the many foods that have already passed through it. If your salsas and guacamole are free of grit and taste OK, consider it seasoned.

  4. #12 by Lorin Johnson on March 31, 2011 - 2:58 pm

    I must admit, mine has been used for years without first seasoning. Remember that great ceviche a nanny made? Parts of that were ground in mine.

    • #13 by Cooking in Mexico on March 31, 2011 - 4:12 pm

      Actually, you did season it just like Paolita did. You both started using it to make salsas or guacamole, and that turned out to be your seasoning procedure. I would still recommend first seasoning and cleaning with raw rice, but it is too late for that. Nothing to be concerned about.

  5. #14 by Lyndsey on March 31, 2011 - 4:10 pm

    Great tips, I have always wanted a molcajete, and now I am armed with all this info. My husband is never in the kitchen, which is okay (I guess), but he said he wanted to try to master making salsa, but still hasn’t. Hmmm….maybe I should get HIM one for Father’s Day or birthday. :D

    • #15 by Cooking in Mexico on March 31, 2011 - 4:17 pm

      Good idea — it would make a unique Father’s Day gift, and maybe result in some freshly made salsas.

  6. #16 by Lesley on March 31, 2011 - 5:35 pm

    I like your tips much better than what I learned in cooking school. We had to grind dried corn four times separately, then dried beans three times, then dried rice three times, then wet rice twice! Needless to say, I was completely without ánimo by the time I got to the beans, so I cheated and now my molcajete isn’t seasoned correctly. Gonna try your version next. :-)

  7. #18 by sweetlife on April 1, 2011 - 12:50 am

    Wonderful post, perfect for new owners of a molcajete…I have one that was my grandfather’s, who gave it to my mom when she was a newlywed. She passed it to me after my daughter was born and it is one of my prized possesions…I also have a little piggie and two others that I have yet to season, for sheer laziness to grind the rice. I have my eye on a HUGE one that I spotted in Progreso, but I want to place it in the center of my kitchen. Thank you for sharing such great info, have a great weekend

    sweetlife
    my mom is visitng me next weekend, we are attempting your garbanzo torta

    • #19 by Cooking in Mexico on April 1, 2011 - 6:50 am

      I would like to hear about your seasoning of the huge one — that will be quite a job!
      When you make the torta de garbanzo, you may want to use your molcajete for the almonds. Otherwise, you could have little nut pieces in the mixture.
      I hope you have a great week-end with your Mom.

  8. #20 by Andrea @ Fork Fingers Chopsticks on April 1, 2011 - 9:14 pm

    Great post. I remember reading Kennedy’s instructions intently. However, I’ve had the good fortune of inheriting a well-seasoned molcajete twice.

    • #21 by Cooking in Mexico on April 1, 2011 - 9:37 pm

      Perhaps my molcajete will now become an heirloom, to be passed down. Sweetlife left a comment that she, too, inherited one. I had not thought of a molcajete as something to leave to the next generation. Now I think of mine in a new light and wonder who else will one day make salsas in it.

  9. #22 by Oaxaca Cultural Navigator on April 2, 2011 - 8:24 am

    Egad Kathleen. You are such an inspiration! For years I’ve been wanting to buy a molcajete at the regional Tlacolula market but could not imagine how to haul home to NC a 10 lb. Stone grinder. So yesterday I went into my local tienda in Pittsboro, NC and found the piggy molcajete. After reading your blog post my husband Stephen agreed to follow Russ’ lead. He is in the kitchen now seasoning it. Today is el dia de mole Amarillo en mi cocina. Gracias.

    • #23 by Cooking in Mexico on April 2, 2011 - 9:08 am

      Great! Be sure to dry it completely between the 3 rice grindings, so that you don’t end up with rice mush pushed into the holes. If the surface is very rough, it may take more than 3 grindings (sorry). The last grinding should produce white, powdered rice, indicating the molcajete is free of rock debris.
      Hey, you changed your avatar photo. Now I know what you look like! I need to put up a photo of me, instead of hiding behind the chiles. :)
      Mole amarillo — provecho!

  10. #24 by paul jennette on April 2, 2011 - 11:32 am

    Thank you so much! I have had a molcajete for some time now and its still sitting in a corner staring at me saying “are you ever going to use me”? You have now inspired me to do so, I’m going to bookmark this page and do it this weekend! Thanks.-Paulie

    • #25 by Cooking in Mexico on April 2, 2011 - 11:37 am

      You are welcome. This is a good week-end project. Get your vacuum cleaner out — rice will fly!

  11. #26 by muybuenocookbook on April 6, 2011 - 11:28 am

    Love that you could actually smell the sulfur while cleaning it. It’s a great reminder of the history of this magic volcanic rock. Good to know how to clean a new one – I never knew how to clean one being that I have a very old molcajete which is quite seasoned. My uncle has my grandmother’s large molcajete and so I plan to do some begging for it on my next visit home. LOL!

    • #27 by Cooking in Mexico on April 6, 2011 - 12:35 pm

      Several readers have written that they inherited a molcajete. If only these tools could tell us of all the different salsas and other good foods that have passed under their tejolotes.

  12. #28 by Vicki in GA on April 8, 2011 - 9:54 pm

    Oh, so that is what is done to make them smooth? Nothing like grit in my sauces because I failed to make mine perfect like yours.

    Is that your hubby? What a cutie! Now, I want to see a photo of YOU.

    • #29 by Cooking in Mexico on April 8, 2011 - 9:58 pm

      Yup, that’s him, concentrating on grinding. Go to “About” at the top of the page, and you will see my photo.

  13. #30 by Christopher on April 17, 2011 - 10:08 am

    Great advice on seasoning the mocajete. I bought one the last time I was in Central Mexico, and someone told me to season it by crushing a bulb of garlic. A great idea for disinfecting it, but not necessarily for smoothing the surface. Also, I’m afraid I bought one with large holes…regardless…my mocajete is coming out of the cupboard and back onto the counter. Thanks!

    • #31 by Cooking in Mexico on April 17, 2011 - 4:10 pm

      You may have to work a little harder to clean it when you salsa is done, but I think it will still work fine.

  14. #32 by Hola on June 20, 2013 - 1:22 pm

    Another way to clean is to use running water, now that its widely available in homes. Smoothen, we no longer buy stones chiseled with crude hand tools, no need to smoothen what’s commonly available today. Season, just use it.

    We seem to get tied up in tradition without thinking why those methods were employed.

    • #33 by Cooking in Mexico on June 21, 2013 - 9:57 pm

      Rice or corn are first used not to smooth the molcajetes, but to clean them of debris left from when they were made. Because it is basically rock, rock powder is left in the little holes on the surface. Grinding rice into it removes the debris. But if you find that using water works for you, thank you for sharing this with us.

  15. #34 by Vicki on July 1, 2013 - 7:46 am

    If you are buying a mocajete outside of the US and bringing back to the US by air. Make sure you pack it into your checked luggage. My daughter in law had her’s confiscated at security at the airport when she had it in her carry-on. The security guards in Mexico considered it a weapon!

    • #35 by Cooking in Mexico on July 1, 2013 - 9:11 am

      A weapon? Had your daughter not had this experience, I never would have thought a molcajete could be confiscated at the airport. An example of extreme, unnecessary caution. Thanks for the warning.

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