Molcajete vs Mortar and Pestle – Which is Best for You!

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Thinking about getting a mortar and pestle or molcajete? Both are used for the same purpose – to grind, crush, and bind various liquids and solids together. However, they have fundamental differences, which we’ll discuss today. 

While both tools perform the same purpose, the mortal and pestle and the molcajete have significant differences. A molcajete is traditionally made out of one piece of basalt and seasons further with more use. A mortar and pestle comes in multiple materials and has different shapes. 

Today, we’ll discuss the primary differences between these two items. We’ll also talk about their similarities and then examine what would be the best choice for various tasks. Let’s get started! 

What is the Mexican Version of a Mortar and Pestle? 

You’ve probably heard of a mortar and pestle, but you may not have heard of a molcajete. 

Usually only used in traditional Hispanic culture, the molcajete is the Mexican version of a mortar and pestle. It has some key differences from the mortar and pestle, however.

For hundreds of years, Mexicans have been making salsas, guacamole, and other tasty treats with their molcajetes. Made for stability, these tools are one of the best things you can use to grind ingredients into a rough paste. While mortars and pestles do the same thing essentially, they tend to grind into a smoother paste. 

Is a Molcajete and a Mortar and Pestle the Same Thing?

Molcajete
Molcajete

Many people mistakenly believe that a molcajete, a mortar, and a pestle are the same things. As I mentioned, these two tools mostly do the same thing, so the idea that they’re the same thing doesn’t come as a surprise. However, these tools do have a variety of differences.

A molcajete is not the same thing as a mortar and pestle. The molcajete is generally made from basalt and grinds ingredients into a rough paste. The mortar and pestle can be made from a variety of materials and grinds ingredients into a smooth paste.

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To help better understand the differences, let’s look at the pros and cons of using each tool. 

Molcajete

Molcajete Pros & Cons
Molcajete Pros & Cons

Pros

  • It is carved from a single piece. This makes it more durable. 
  • It has a rough interior. This helps to break down ingredients as they are ground. 
  • The material is almost always basalt. Basalt, which comes from volcanic rock, is stronger than the stone that mortar and pestles are often made from. It also seasons further over time. 
  • It tends to be more stable than mortar and pestle. This is due to the three legs that the molcajete sits on.

Cons

Mortar and Pestle

Mortar and Pestle Pros and Cons
Mortar and Pestle Pros and Cons

Pros

  • It works excellently for pounding. While the molcajete specializes in grinding, the mortar and pestle often pound ingredients very thoroughly. 
  • Its smooth interior allows ingredients to break into a more delicate powder or liquid. Because mortar and pestles are often made from smooth stone, they do a significantly better job of breaking down the ingredients. 
  • There are a variety of materials to choose from. Mortar and pestles, while most often made from stone, can be made from various materials, including wood, concrete, and rocks.

Cons

  • The shape makes the mortar and pestle somewhat unstable. This tool has a round bowl shape on the bottom, and it can be difficult sometimes to keep it steady. 
  • The shape of the club can be challenging to work with. Because of the rounded end of the club, it can sometimes be difficult to crush ingredients fully. 

As you can see from going through some of the pros and cons, these devices are pretty similar, but they have their differences. There are two significant differences between a mortar and pestle and a molcajete – the shape of the bowl, including the legs on the molcajete, and the materials they are each made from. 

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We’ll look at each of these things in a little more detail moving forward. 

Breaking Down a Molcajete

Molcajetes have been around for hundreds of years. They’ve been used heavily in Hispanic culture. The tools originate from Mexico and are still used today to make tons of great food, such as guacamole and salsas, and blend various spices. 

Molcajetes have two pieces – the basin, sometimes called the mortar, and the tejolote, also known as the grinder or pestle. Usually, the ingredients are blended by repeatedly pressing down and twisting the grinder. This dish also sits on three legs.

The bowl itself is almost always made from volcanic rock, which gives it its signature rough texture that helps to break down many ingredients. In more modern times, it has sometimes been made from a mix of volcanic rock and concrete. 

The molcajete is one of the best tools to bring out the deep flavors in various spices and other ingredients because the grinding and twisting motion releases the essential oils in the food. The flavor amplifies tremendously as these oils come to the surface, leaving you with a beautiful and rich flavor profile. 

With that in mind, let’s discuss how to use a molcajete. 

The basic steps involve chopping up the ingredients and placing heavy pressure on the food in the bowl. Pressure is necessary to break down the food thoroughly.

  1. First things first, you’ll want to chop any ingredients ahead of time. You don’t want to place huge chunks in the molcajete because they won’t grind well enough.
  2. Secondly, begin applying pressure. Molcajetes, mortars, and pestles, for that matter, are all about elbow grease. Press down and twist as you grind the ingredients thoroughly. 
  3. Thirdly, grind the ingredients until they are the consistency that you want. This will vary from dish to dish.

Breaking Down a Mortar and Pestle

The mortar and pestle are relatively similar to the molcajete. Italian culture often uses this tool to make excellent pesto and blend oils, cheeses, berries, and so on.

The mortar and pestle have been around for centuries, and it’s been enormously helpful. As times have changed, it’s become more and more popular. One of the reasons this is the case is because, unlike the molcajete, it comes designed with a wide variety of materials. 

You can purchase mortar and pestles in stone, wood, concrete, and various types of rock. The versatility of materials has made it a favorite of many worldwide. 

The grinder in the mortar and pestle is a bit different because it acts more like a club with a rounded end. The rounded end allows the grinder to reach into the crevices within the bowl, which is usually designed to be rounded on the bottom and with a wide mouth. 

The only problem is that occasionally the rounded end makes it difficult to completely crush the ingredients. You have to turn the pestle somewhat to pulverize the ingredients thoroughly.

One of the main advantages of the mortar and pestle is that it works for pounding ingredients. For example, there isn’t a better tool if you have pine nuts or almonds you want to crush. 

The mortar and pestle don’t have legs, which can sometimes make it more unstable. On the other hand, it makes turning to reach areas where the ingredients have built up significantly easier.

Can You Use a Molcajete Like a Mortar and Pestle? 

Grinding Spices
Grinding Spices

You can use a molcajete like a mortar and pestle, but don’t expect the texture to be the same. These tools, while similar, don’t do exactly the same thing. The mortar and pestle work to grind the ingredients to complete smoothness, while the molcajete works to release essential oils and flavors within the ingredients. 

If you choose to use a molcajete like a mortar and pestle, you can expect a rougher version of what you would achieve with a mortar and pestle. This is primarily due to the material that a molcajete is made from. 

Conclusion

Molcajetes and mortars and pestles are relatively similar tools, but they do have some major differences, such as the grinder’s shape, the materials each is made from, and the way the bowls sit on the working surface. 

Overall, which you choose to use depends heavily on what your purpose is. In general, molcajetes produce a rougher final product, and mortars and pestles are better for fully breaking down the ingredients. 

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