A molcajete, pronounced (mole-kah-het-ai) is basically the Mexican version of a mortar and pestle. Traditionally, molcajetes were carved from a single block of vesicular basalt which gives them a very course or rough surface. They are usually round in shape and sport three short legs for support.

Molcajetes are used for crushing and grinding spices as well as to prepare salsas and guacamole. The rough surface of the vesicular basalt makes an efficient grinding surface that can maintain itself for long periods of time. As tiny bubbles in the basalt get ground down through repeated use, the texture is able to replenish itself.

Molcajetes are often used as serving dishes in many homes and restaurants, but they can also be used as an additional tool for cooking and keeping food hot for longer periods of time; although most warm recipes are not usually cooked in them.

Due to its high thermal mass, the molcajete can be heated to high temperatures over hot coals or in an oven and then removed and used to heat food which can remain very hot for half an hour or more after serving.

True molcajetes should be made out of basalt, but imitations available for purchase can be made out of a mixture of volcanic rock particles and concrete.

New basalt molcajetes should be “broken in”. The reason for this is that tiny grains of basalt will loosen and separate from the surface upon initial use, creating an unpleasant texture for the first few things being crushed or mashed.

A great way to “break in” a molcajete is to grind a handful of white rice at a time until no more grains of basalt can be seen in the rice flour.

Once this is achieved, the molcajete is ready to use. Keep in mind that some rice flour might stay ground into the surface, but this is no problem because it just helps “season” the molcajete, which we will talk about next.

Porous basalt is basically impossible to fully clean so molcajetes naturally become “seasoned” over time, sort of like a cast iron skillet. When something is seasoned, it carries over flavors from one dish or preparation to the next.

It’s not uncommon for salsas and guacamole to have a distinctive texture and flavor when they are prepared in a molcajete as opposed to a blender or food processor.

It is recommended that when grinding ingredients in the molcajete, that one begins with the firmest ingredient before moving to the second firmest ingredient and so on until the softest is added last. In the case of salsa, it might look like garlic > jalapeño > onion > tomato.