Tequila reigns supreme when it comes to agave derivatives, but its cousin, mezcal, is quickly earning its place in the limelight, including as an ingredient in cooking.
Recently I visited the proud of home of mezcal in Oaxaca, Mexico, to learn more about the divisive spirit from the people who know it best. Like any key ingredient, it’s important to understand the properties of mezcal, including how it’s made. The company Mezcal Unión was kind enough to show me how they turn agave into liquor at their palenque in the Oaxacan sierras about two hours outside of the city.
The name mezcal lends itself to understanding the process, as it comes from the Nahuatl word mexcalli, meaning oven-cooked agave. The similarity of name to the drug mescaline is coincidence only, though mezcal does pack quite a punch, with most bottles of the liquor ranging between 40 percent and 55 percent alcohol. Mezcal Union’s oven was something to behold, overlooking fields of wild agave in the Mexican desert.
Photo by Ali Wunderman
We watched as they chucked the large piñas, which are the heart of the agave (think of an artichoke without its leaves, only giant), into a ditch dug into the earth and filled with burning wood. The piñas are buried, then left to slowly roast for six months before being distilled twice and turned into a much more complicated and varied liquor than its cousin tequila, which can only come from the blue agave species.
Mezcal is also known for having a worm in the bottle, which is actually the larvae of the moth, and very likely a marketing ploy for tourists, like a scorpion lollipop. Larvae is unessential to the mezcal-making process. Serious Eats has a good guide to the history of mezcal and how it’s made, right down to the worm.
Native Oaxacans prefer to drink mezcal straight, however through the lens of western gastronomy it makes for great cocktails, and the wide variety of flavors makes it fun to cook with, despite not being a traditional Mexican practice.
Photo by Ali Wunderman
So how are chefs and cooks incorporating mezcal into their meals? Here are a few recipes to get you started and inspired:
This recipe comes straight from a mezcal cooking class in Oaxaca, where specific mezcal were chosen based on which nuanced flavors would come through in the cooking. In this case Mezcal from the Espadín agave is used, and has the double factor of being both closely related to the blue agave from which we get tequila, but the most widely used and therefore incredible versatile. The mezcal is added to the chocolate sauce to give it some extra kick, making for an interesting take on a traditional recipe.
Mezcal is not the centerpiece of this salmon recipe on Food&Wine, but as is the case with many recipes involving the liquor, it adds a little extra something to otherwise straightforward meals. Mezcal tends to have a smokiness to it, what with all the underground roasting, and that flavor is incorporated here. Rather than roasting the salmon, the smokiness comes through in a multi-hour curing session, wherein the mezcal has time to seep into the salmon and share its characteristic flavor.
If a reminder was needed that cooking with mezcal is not a traditional Oaxacan practice, just check out this ceviche with mezcal recipe from Williams-Sonoma, which is taken from a book written by a cooking couple with a restaurant in Tulum, Mexico. Like the other recipes, the mezcal adds a flavor to this cold dish that would normally only be available through roasting. The recipe explains, “the earthy, smoky flavor of the mezcal sets up both the sharpness of the citrus in the marinade and the fattiness of the avocado,” which sounds absoutely delicious.
“Shrimp are like cotton balls, absorbing the flavor of whatever they bathe in,” says Kim Severson of the New York Times in her mezcal/shrimp recipe. She refers to mezcal as tequila in the descriptive section, but make no mistake, this recipe calls for the smoky flavor that’s found in mezcal. Considering shrimp’s amazing absorptive properties, measuring the amount of mezcal will be key here, as you don’t want to overdo it on the mezcal notes.
Main photo: casey atchley/Flickr
Ali Wunderman is a semi-nomadic travel, food and wildlife writer. She is founder of The Naturalist and author of the upcoming Moon Travel Guide to San Francisco.