Hundreds of years before Swiss Miss, Indigenous Mesoamericans drank bitter, spiced chocolate — and invented the reigning champ of hot cocoa mixers
With its high altitude and cool temps, afternoons in Bogotá are marked by warm beverages and snacky carbs. But whereas cultures with similar traditions like the tea-drinking English might go for scones and cucumber sandwiches, in the Colombian capital, where I was born and raised, the traditional onces santafereñas (afternoon snacks) consist of tamales and pandeyucas, paired with a cup of delicate, foamy hot chocolate. Unlike the bland, mini marshmallow-studded Swiss Miss warmed in the microwave, hot chocolate in Colombia is an effervescent textural experience, both lighter and chocolatier than a packet dumped in a tepid mug of milk. And it’s often whisked by hand, on the stovetop, with a molinillo.
The nearly foot-long wooden whisk has been used for centuries in Central America to make perfect hot cocoa. Though there is some debate about the origin and domestication of cacao, Indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica famously used chocolate for rituals, medicine, and currency, so it makes sense they would develop the perfect tool to efficiently mix drinking chocolate. In the late 16th century, Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún documented the molinillo’s use in Aztec culture in the Florentine Codex, and researchers have found traces of foamy drinking chocolate in ancient Mayan vessels too.
According to the Larousse Encyclopedia of Mexican Gastronomy, the name molinillo comes from the Nahuatl “moliniani,” meaning to move or wiggle. Rather than stir the hot chocolate, like you might with a spoon, you place the end of the molinillo in a pot of hot water (or milk) and chocolate, then rub the handle between your palms, creating a small whirlpool that not only incorporates the cocoa but also oxygenates the mixture. While there are other ways to create volume and texture in a drink (pouring back and forth between two pitchers, zipping it with an electric blender, nitro-infusion), the molinillo’s design creates a particularly delicate, light froth.
The molinillo’s staying power among ancient cooking objects — and its spread southward to Colombia — comes down to its ingenious design, ease of use, and eye-catching look. But most of all, the molinillo remains beloved for the unbeatable texture it lends to every cup of cocoa.
Why You Need One
In 2014, researchers from the Institute of Biotechnology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico analyzed the molinillo’s unique foam-generating abilities. They found the whisk blades reached about 7 miles per hour, rapidly pulling in air and dispersing it through the liquid. They also found that cocoa’s high protein and fatty acid content helped the molinillo create finer, more homogenous bubbles, producing a texture that’s far lighter than the thick whipped-milk topping on a cappuccino.
Then there’s the molinillo’s dashing good looks. The tool is often an impressive work of art, intricately carved from a single piece of soft wood, decoratively burned, and accessorized with ornamental rings that spin independently around the base. Some versions are designed entirely for display, but even the most basic utilitarian model is a beautiful addition to your kitchen.
If somehow you don’t drink enough hot chocolate to justify a place for the molinillo in a drawer, you can also use it for atole, a variety of hot Mexican drinks thickened with corn, including the chocolate-flavored champurrado. Likewise, it can be handy behind the bar for muddling fruits and herbs, and mixing cocktails. José Luis León, bar director for the RitualH group in Mexico City, has used his molinillo in place of a swizzle stick to put a local twist on a punch of guava, green apple, lemon, Becherovka, amaretto, and whiskey.
While you could mix up a cup of Hershey’s or Ghirardelli, drinking chocolate really blooms with tastes rooted in Mesoamerica like the whisk itself (though as the tool spread to South America, including Colombia, fluffy hot chocolate has become a natural pairing for a broad assortment of flavors there too). In his 1590 text, Natural and Moral History of the Indies, the Spanish Jesuit José de Acosta recorded Indigenous peoples adding chile and spices to their chocolate. In his own research, renowned Mexican chef Ricardo Muñoz Zurita found evidence that chocolate was seasoned with allspice, vanilla, and edible flowers, and it was sometimes sweetened with honey from melipona bees. “The drink was bitter and not sweet as it is known today, but it was a good bitterness,” Zurita says.
A few shops, like Mexico City’s La Rifa Chocolatería, offer traditional bitter chocolate, but even supermarket brands like Ibarra and Abuelita include interesting flavors of almond and cinnamon along with sugar and cocoa. Taza spikes their chocolate with several kinds of chile, intense 85 percent dark chocolate, or coffee. These flavors, combined with the texture imparted by the molinillo, make for a far more nuanced, bracing drink than a sleepy cup of dull, milky cocoa.
How to Use One
Though originally drinking chocolate would have been made with water, the molinillo can be used with milk or your preferred mix of the two. It’s best to use the hard chocolate tablets found throughout Latin America, which add a grainy, sort of rustic texture, with a nice balance of sweet and bitter flavor. While it can also work with chocolate powder, tablets usually have higher fat content, which creates a more substantial foam.
To get the best results, it’s helpful to have a little technique. Begin by heating water or milk with the chocolate on the stove, chopping up a tablet, and plopping it in the liquid. Submerge the molinillo completely and begin rubbing the whisk between your hands to help the tablet dissolve. Then keep the whisk spinning as you gradually pull it toward the surface to produce a nice foamy head. “The molinillo blades should be half-submerged, so the chocolate will release its beautiful and appreciated foam,” Yuri de Gortari, a beloved expert on Mexican cuisine, explained in a 2014 video. “It is important that [the liquid] does not boil so that the foam can be released.” It takes a little practice, but once you’ve got the technique down, you’ll never choose any other way to do it.
How to Get One
Today, communities in the Mexican states of Michoacán, Oaxaca, and Puebla specialize in molinillo production, and although designs have evolved a little with time, the modern tool doesn’t look too much different than the original. You can find molinillos at Mexican grocery stores, or grab one online at Amazon or Imported Mexican Foods.
Liliana López Sorzano is a food and travel writer based between Mexico City and Bogotá, Colombia, where she contributes to local and international media. She is a former editor-in-chief at Food & Wine in Spanish.