Friday, July 10, 2009

How to season a molcajete



At the delightful bed and breakfast, known as the Red Tree House, that I stayed at on a recent trip to Mexico City, every morning I would see the owner’s aunt use a molcajete to make salsa. I have eaten many salsas through the years and let me just say that this was some of the best salsa I’d ever tasted in my life. I know that much love and passion went into this cooking and that’s the main reason why it was so compelling. But I also figured that using a molcajete didn’t hurt. And so at the moment, I decided must have my own molcajete.

If you’re not familiar with a molcajete, it is a Mexican mortar and pestle. The term molcajete actually refers to the three-legged round bowl, which has been carved out of basalt. The pestle, which is known as the tejolote, has also been carved out of the same volcanic rock. In the thousands of years that this ancient tool has been used, there haven’t been any changes to the core shape—it’s a timeless design. Though because it’s a squatty vessel with legs, molcajetes are sometimes carved into animal shapes such as a bull or a pig.

A molcajete is an extremely durable piece of cookware, so durable, in fact, that in Mexico people pass down their well-loved molcajetes to the next generation, just as Southerners pass down cast-iron cookware to their children and grandchildren. And this is the key: a molcajete only gets better with use, as it absorbs flavors and reflects these back into whatever you’re currently making. A well-seasoned molcajete also is smooth and is no longer in danger of shedding lava-rock grit into your food.



Being more Tex than Mex, I realized that I didn’t have anyone to bequeath me a well-seasoned molcajete—if I wanted one I would have to buy it new. And yes, it would need to be seasoned. After going through the act, I decided that no one should ever have to suffer through my mistakes. So if you’re interested in acquiring a molcajete, here are my tips on making the best out of the seasoning process. And if you follow these instructions, you’ll soon discover that a molcajete is quite simple to use and enjoy.

10 (not quite) easy steps for a well-seasoned molcajete

1. On the way to Spanish Harlem to buy a molcajete at the Mexican grocery that you know sells them, pop into a chain home-furnishings store. Yep, they’re having a sale and included in said bargains is a molcajete. It looks pretty and the price is right, so you buy it.

2. Follow the seasoning instructions that come with the molcajete. The first step is to soak the molcajete in water for a few hours. No problem.

3. After you’ve dried the molcajete,take a small handful (about 1/4 of a cup) of rice and pound it into the molcajete until the rice turns into a grey powder. Repeat this process until rice no longer turns grey but instead stays white.

4. Clean up the rice that has shot out of the molcajete as you’ve been pounding it. You’ll need a vacuum (with hose attachments) and a screwdriver (to wedge up you laptop’s keyboard to pull out errant kernels—yes, that’s why your “T” and “F” keys no longer work). But no matter how thorough you are, please don’t be surprised if you see rice all over the house for weeks—it happens to the best of us.

5. Smash into the molcajete some garlic, cumin seeds, rock salt and cilantro. Create a paste and let it sit overnight so that the molcajete can absorb the flavors. When you clean it the next day, don’t be alarmed if small patches of the molcajete are now stained green—chlorophyll is good for you.

6. If the big-box store’s instructions are to be believed, the molcajete should now be seasoned. Make a batch of guacamole, take a bite, and get a mouthful of grit. Repeat steps two through five, about 20 times.

7. After going through seven avocados, 14 tomatoes, 21 cloves of garlic, a pound of cilantro, countless cumin seeds and chunks of rock salt, you finally admit to yourself that your salsas still have grit in them.

8. Texan food writer Melissa Guerra recommends using a wire brush to season a molcajete, so you buy one at the hardware store. You spend the rest of the evening scrubbing your molcajete with the brush, subsequently scraping your knuckles until they bleed a little bit into the bowl. But that’s OK—blood has iron, right? And that’s good for you.

9. You make a batch of salsa. Grit. You ask around and the consensus is that the big-box store might be selling molcajetes that are partially made out of concrete and no matter what you do, it will never, ever be smooth and grit free because the stone is just too soft. Yes, you’ve bought an overpriced decorative bowl, useful only for showing off those tomatoes you bought at the farmer’s market.

10. Head up to Spanish Harlem, buy a molcajete from the Mexican grocery store you intended to buy one from in the first place and notice that it looks exactly like the one your bed and breakfast used in Mexico (it’s shaped like a pig!). Take it home and repeat steps two through five. Make a batch of salsa, and enjoy it—grit free!



Now, in case you’re wondering if I think it’s worth having a molcajete, I do indeed. I haven’t thrown out my blender, but if I have the time to make a salsa in my molcajete I’m in for a real treat. There’s just something about the texture and flavor that can’t be replicated in a machine.

And if you’re looking for recipes to make in your new molcajete, then head on over to Serious Eats, where I will be writing about salsas on Thursdays for the rest of the summer.¡Buen provecho!

Other people's molcajete-seasoning experiences:
Carolynn CarreƱo goes through a ton of rice to season her molcajete.
As does the Foodinista.
Melissa Guerra sells molcajetes and discusses her wire-brush method.
And The Kitchn warns about cheap molcajetes.


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55 comments:

Alejandra said...

Oh this is just perfect timing! I've been wanting to get a molcajete for a while now. I think I drive my boyfriend crazy because anytime we're even near the vicinity of guacamole or avocados or mexican restaurants or anything vaguely related, I find myself saying "Man, I really need to get a molcajete..."

So until that day finally comes, I will bookmark this post!

Whitney said...

this totally made me laugh!

Growing up I had a nanny because both my parents traveled during the week for work who was from outside of Mexico City and I can fondly remember her well worn molcajete. Especially during tamale making season every Christmas. I might have to track one down in Humboldt Park. The real thing of course :)

Melissa said...

I lived with my husband's family in San Juan, Teotihuacan for 8 months before we left to come back to the U.S. to get married. I had always admired her molcajete. It was originally from Oaxaca and she got it in the 1960's. Pig-shaped, it was beautiful! When we were getting in the car to leave, mi suegra came running out with the molcajete in her hands....and back it traveled with us to Ohio. Although I didn't have to go through seasoning it, I will tell you it has held the most sabrosas salsas you would ever eat. I would never give mine up---except to pass on to one of my daughters. Funny thing is, it is my SON that likes to cook! :)

Phoo-D said...

Oh dear what a disaster! Thank you for sharing what you learned. I've wanted to own a molcajete for some times and will take your advice to heart and not buy one from a big box retailer!

Anonymous said...

Oh, I love mine so much! My friend Josie (Josefina) actually brought it back for me from Mexico once when she went to visit family. It's one of my favorite gifts ever. When I make salsa in it I just serve it in it too! The rest of the time it sits on my counter holding garlic and shallots. Well, and sometimes rubberbands and chapstick and golf tees, too. See, it's very useful!

~ Peggasus

HoustonGurly said...

My sister just bought one a few weeks ago from Trader's Village... I wonder if hers is made out of concrete. I'll have to ask her about that and give her your instructions for seasoning it. Thanks for the informative post! :)

Emily said...

Ooh...I had never heard of these till now, but now I definitely want one! Salsa and guacamole in a Pyrex mixing bowl seems woefully inadequate now. I will be on the lookout when I'm back in Texas for a few weeks in August.

Anonymous said...

I bought one a while ago and never seasoned it. Whoops. The good news is I haven't had gritty guac. Now that it's seasoned what's the best way to wash it? My intuition is telling me that it probably shouldn't go in the dishwasher.

radish said...

i nearly died laughing reading your steps!! i want one now! where do i get it? in fact, i need to pick your brain on items i should stock in my pantry. i'm very intimidated by tex/mex ingredients and where to get them.

tbsamsel said...

It's easier to do the rice grinding outside (or on the stoop).. fewer rices in the keyboard..

Ted

Lorraine said...

That's hilarious. Reminds me of the "pre-seasoned" cast iron I've seen at gas stations in camping areas. The ones that make scrambled eggs with tasty, good-for-you flakes of iron in them.

laura said...

There's an amazing little Mexican spot here that makes molcajete soups. They just call them molcajete, so I'm not sure what their technical name it, but they're delicious. They fill a molcajete with rich tomato-y broth, peppers, fish & other yummy stuff & broil it. It comes out piping hot & stays that way for ages. It's the perfect thing to eat on cold, damp nights. They won't be around for a while, but it's a good thing to keep in mind for fall!

Lety said...

My grandma and mom helped me season my molcajete as a little girl. We soaked it in water, then added a good handful of rice and more water and let the rice absorb some of the water then pounded the slurry in with the tejolote.

I found that a bad idea for cleaning is to use the water sprayer--it digs the rice right out.

Lisa (Homesick Texan) said...

Alejandra--You should definitely get a molcajete.

Whitney--What a wonderful memory! I wonder how many years she had used her molcajete? And yes, make sure yours is authentic!

Melissa--Wow! That's quite a gift she gave you!

Phoo-D--Yep, don't get suckered by their prices (which actually aren't any better than the real thing I soon learned).

Peggasus--Ha! Mine is also holding garlic right now, I haven't yet graduated to rubberbands and chapstick!

HoustonGurly--You're very welcome. And I'm not familiar with Trader's Village but it sounds like a place that sells imports so it might be OK.

Emily--Good question. The best way to wash it is by scrubbing it with a brush--don't use soap and definitely don't put it in the dishwasher.

Radish--I got it up on 116th street, at a store on the north side of the street between Third and Second. You can see them in the windows.

Ted-Brilliant! Now why didn't I think of that?

Lorraine--Yuck--I hear you--I would never buy pre-seasoned cast-iron either.

Laura--I've heard of that and when it's soup season again I'll definitely be making that!

Lety--Oh, that's a good idea--pound the rice while it's wet. And yes, you want the rice to help fill in the cracks, another thing I forgot to mention.

Anonymous said...

...'I haven't thrown out my blender yet...'

Is that so you can make margaritas?

I love reading your stuff--my dad was from New Mexico, so I love to read more about the food he surely grew up with. Blessings.

Sandhill Sis
http://reclaimsimplicity.com

deceiverofmen said...

so glad you posted this. My sister sent me a molcajete from mex-grocer and it came with very minimal seasoning instructions "grind a whole bag of garlic". The website had completely different instructions than it came with. It says to use corn though instead of rice, i wonder if that will give everything that nice masa flavor.

hmmmmm

Jorge said...

Jorge's aunt appreciates the compliment. Coming from you, best salsa ever mention, is such an honor. Gracias Lisa.

Grub Blogger said...

I am a big fan of your site, and this is one of my favorite posts. I have been meaning to pick up a molcajete for awhile, and now can do so knowing I can season it correctly. Your site is one of my inspirations for a food blog I just started, and I'm going to give you a shout out pretty soon when I post any entry about refried beans (give credit where credit is due, and all).

Anonymous said...

Greetings from Mark & Wendy in Dallas, TX.

We've have my great-grandmother's molcajete since we were married. I figure it's been seasoning for about 110 years +.

Enjoy your blog. Keep on writing.

Anonymous said...

You have inspired me to retrieve my molcajete (purchased from the Sante Fe School of Cooking) from its holding place in my cupboard where it has sat for 2 years -- unsure on how to remove the grit.
Guacomole, salsa here I come!

Many thnx. Love your blog!

Sam-native NYer, former Angeleno now living in Texas.

Anonymous said...

My dad gave me his about 25 years ago, so I guess it has about 60 years of use at this point in time. A very versitile implement.

mikefromtexas

Alta said...

Love your steps, was laughing the whole time. I'm excited to see your weekly bit on Serious Eats! And...I shall be locating myself a molcajete very soon!

Zayda said...

I was taught to season my molcajete with actual spices. I soaked it overnight and let it dry. then was told by my grandmother to grind peppercorns,whole cumin,salt,white onions and garlic. Shortly after she passed away and I inherited hers; I was amazed how smooth it was and how her tejolote had been worn down over the years of daily use. I felt like I should get to work breaking in the one she had bought me so I only use her molcajete for special occasions. It takes time but it is worth it.

amber said...

wow, i feel lucky! Whenever I need to make salsa or guacamole I just borrow one of my mother-in-law's 5 well seasoned molcajetes. She is always saying she's going to buy me one so I gues one day I'll have to season one myself!

AdamH said...

I'm so glad you're joining Serious Eats!

Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

I bought my molcajete at the central market in Guadalajara; it has three different animal heads, and I've not seen another one like it. I seasoned it using the rice method, years ago, and yes, it does stop oozing grit into your food. And it makes the absolutely best guacamole.

Lisa (Homesick Texan) said...

Sandhill Sis--Ha! And thanks!

Deceiverofmen--I have heard of people using corn and I bet it does leave a nice masa flavor in the bowl.

Jorge--Aw, I miss y'all!

Grub Blogger--Thank you, I look forward to hearing about your refried beans.

Mark & Wendy--HOWDY!! Good to see y'all! Your molcajete sounds awesome!

Sam--Remove that grit and put that molcajete to work!

Mike--Very nice--I bet it's as smooth as glass.

ALta--Thanks, glad it made you laugh!

Zayda--It is indeed worth it.

Amer--Five? Wow, what a bounty!

Adam--Thank you, they're a wonderful bunch of people and I'm honored to be writing for them.

Lydia--Three heads? I've never seen anything like that either. What a treasure!

gabrielaskitchen said...

Oh a small favor to ask. Would you be so kind as to let me know the name of the grocery store in Spanish Harlem and the cross streets where you found your molcajete? I'd be so grateful! Thanks.

Lisa (Homesick Texan) said...

Gabrielaskitchen--I don't know the name (it's not on the receipt) but the shop is on 116th between 3rd and 2nd on the North side of the street, middle of the block. They keep the molcajetes on a shelf near the window.

Sherry Sea from Austin said...

Gulp! The idea of all that labor to season the molcajete is scary. Soooo, has anyone done a blind taste test, comparing identically composed batches? You'd want to compare the molcajete with the old fork-and-a-plate method and with the results made in a marble mortar and pestle.

Anonymous said...

My MIL gave me hers (never used and I don't know where she got it) My question is: How can I tell if it is made of lava or concrete? I don't want to go to the bother of seasoning it if it is not legit. Thanks.
Luisa

gabrielaskitchen said...

Thank you! I'm going to buy one today!

Vicki said...

Oh, dear! Thanks for the warning about the inauthentic molcajetes. One of my big regrets when leaving Tucson is not having purchased one while I was there. Thanks.

Troy said...

Try this salsa (ranchera) in the molcajete:
Fry in oil or grill (until partially blackened) 4 roma tomatoes and 2-4 jalapeno or serrano chiles depending upon your desire for heat. The garlic clove can be cooked in skin by grilling the clove with the vegetables or frying, do not blacken. The above cooked ingredients and one slice of crispy bacon are blended in the molcajete and salt added to taste (probably 1tsp). I small handful of cilantro is chopped and added to the salsa. You can chopped fresh or cooked onion (grill or fried)depending on your taste (I prefer without). This is an EXCELLENT and easy salsa.

dandelion said...

I seasoned mine with dried corn that I found at a local Mexican grocery store. It left a sheen of corn oil inside.

Joanne said...

My aunt just gave me one for Christmas. I've no idea where she purchased it, but the instructions that came with it listed both the rice method, the wire brush method and one other method...

And I quote "Next time you are at the do-it-yourself car wash, take some extra quarters and your molcajete. Power wash the interior of the bowl for about 5 minutes. All grit should be blasted out quite completely."

Michael Zussman said...

Hello, just found this posting - very informative! I am getting married soon and just received our molcajete from Crate & Barrell where we're registered. After spending a few hours trying to season it, I went online to see if I was doing it right and came across your blog. Now I am worried that I have a big-box molcajete, and should instead return it and go to spanish harlem (I live in brooklyn, so it's only kind of the other side of the world).

The C&B description says: "Our authentic Mexican molcajete is handcarved of natural volcanic stone, giving it the traditional properties prized for grinding herbs and spices and blending sauces and pastes..."

Thoughts? Thanks a lot!!

Lisa (Homesick Texan) said...

Michael--Congrats on your upcoming nuptials! I didn't have much luck w/ the C&B molcajete but maybe you'll do better with it. That said, if you go to the Mexican markets in Sunset Park and pick up one that has a pig face, that will be more authentic and more easy to season.

Eric said...

Ha! Hilarious. I just got a molcajete as a birthday present from my mother in law, and I found your post while trying to figure out how to season it. Mine didn't have instructions, but fortunately it did come with a pig face, so I guess it's probably authentic!

joshua said...

the first one I saw was on foodnetworks Mexican made easy she was using it to serve fajitas in after warming it has anyone heard of that? I wanted one ever since.I went to my aunts today and she had one and was trying to grind medicine with it.she said she bought it from the mexican store today.I ask her to please don't do that and went and bought her a pill crusher,I've picked the medicine out of it and am soaking it in water now and after reading about them here I can't wait to make some salsa and guacamole in my new kit.tool ,but i now know I have some work to do to season it first.

Anonymous said...

Someone asked what other utensils are useful in a Mexican kitchen: a tortilla press (not made of aluminium!!) and a comal. My mother-in-law passed to me down one from her own mother, a cast iron one that does the trick, but I find that the one a friend brought back from Mex. City to be far better. Cast Iron holds the heat too long... the one from La ciudad was hastily and roughly constructed from what looks like the bottom of a small steel trash can-- heats up and cools down real fast.

Scott said...

So for those of us nowhere near Mexican Harlem or anywhere similar, can you help by elaborating on the specific differences between a bigbox molcajete and an authentic one? What do we look for specifically? I might have to resort to buying online.

Thanks!

Lisa (Homesick Texan) said...

Scott--A big-box molcajete is from an American-based chain store that doesn't specialize in Mexican in goods. Instead, I recommend you get a molcajete from a store that does specialize in Mexican goods, such as melissaguerra.com or mexgrocer.com.

Margaret Allen said...

I just cam across your web-site after looking for uses of a molcajete that a friend just brought me back from San Antonio Texas. Another friend is seasoning it for me; which, after reading the work involved, I'm very grateful for. I can't wait to make guac!

Theresa said...

Thanks for the info & the laugh... I plan to get one myself but I knew it would need seasoning... now I know how much labor it will take to get it close to "just right". My mocajete will be passed down to one my grandkids (they already like to cook). :-)

Herlinda Lopez said...

This has nothing to do with a molcajete but have you ever tried beans fried in chorizo. You brown the chorizo then add the beans. You may have to add some oil to the chorizo so that the beans don't stick. One of my family's favorite dishes. I have so many simple recipes that my mom made as we grew up very poor in Mexico and she had to make due with what was available.

Laurie Waters said...

I'm seasoning my new molcajete that I just bought in Santa Fe as I write. Rice all over everything. I thought, what the heck, give it a few scrapes without rice, just rock on rock. I started to get a burning smell - I guess there's a lot of carbon in the rock. Back to rice. It's now soaking in garlic paste overnight. I was a bit put off when the seasoning instructions said to use 6 to 8 heads of garlic, which even I thought might be overkill (I stopped at 3. Anyone need garlic? I have lots). The whole house smells like garlic. The neighbors are starting to notice. Going to try the guac on Saturday. Assuming I can find some decent avocados in December.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the laugh and the instructions! I bought my molcajete from C&B and luckily I have not had any grit in my guacamole. In fact I am now known amongst my friends as the best guac maker this side of the Rio Grande. For the record, some of my friends are Mexican born. Question: Do I need to season the molcajete periodically? I seem to recall somethign about that in the C&B instructions that are now lost (thus the reason how I wound up here). Thanks again! hv

Jayme said...

We were so excited to finally get a molcajete as a wedding gift! We were NOT so excited when we figured out how much work it will take to season it. Boo. Thanks for this awesome post! Love it.

Anonymous said...

I read on another blog that in Mexico, families would never make guac in a Molcajete, rather they only use them for salsas.

Also, I've read a lot about seasoning a molcajete - my question is, am I pounding or grinding the rice? My understanding is that I'm supposed to be grinding the rice to smooth the surface, but after reading this I get the impression I'm supposed to pound the rice into the pores? I thought the whole point of grinding the rice into a powdery form was to smooth the surface of the molcajete.

Lisa (Homesick Texan) said...

Anon--You're grinding the rice to smooth surface.

Sarah said...

Oh thank goodness I found this. I recently acquired a molcajete as a wedding gift and had ZERO idea how to season it so it stops being gritty! Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Wow love all the how to's on seasoning a molcajete. I'm going to do use all advice given and make the best salsa ever. All my Tia's made the best old school moles,salsa,and guacamole in their molcajetes! Now my turn to make memories, lol. Gracias!!!

Susan Bennett said...

I thought I was the only one this happened to.

Anonymous said...

Great laughs, had the same problems with grit, and my original molcajete was bought in Mexico City (at a "gift shop"apparently)! Makes a great garden planter now, since after years of seasoning could NEVER get rid if the grit due to the large-crystal structure of the stone. My advice... look out for the very coarse-grained stone, it's pretty but sloughs off as you grind, in my experience, forever! I just found an AWESOMELY great deal at my Costco (SoCal) on an 8.5" well-made, fine-grained natural stone, nicely finished (no animals though, solid base). It's not available online (I checked, that's how I found this site). I'm now a fan of your site, Homesick! thanks, Kev in Redlands

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