What Is A Comal And How Is It Used For Mexican Cuisine?

Different cuisines worldwide require different tools. In China, the wok and bamboo steamer are common and essential household items used to make a variety of cultural dishes including dan dan noodles and steamed dumplings, respectively (via The Woks of Life). In Ethiopia, Special Broadcasting Service claims that a mogogo and injera paddle are widely common and are how the injera flatbread is eaten with many other foods. Traditional recipes are not separate from the tools we use to make them. Culinary utensils and the cultural foods they help to create are inherently interconnected and in some cases it's hard to claim you're making authentic food if you're not using the tools and methods traditionally used to create them.

When it comes to Mexican food, people take culinary art very seriously. According to Aqui es Texcoco, authentic Mexican cuisine uses fresh ingredients, traditional herbs, and spices such as coriander and epazote, corn tortillas, and handmade frijoles. Traditional Mexican dishes include enmoladas, posole, tortas, chiles en nogada, and tacos de papa. But a key aspect to making an authentic Mexican meal is the comal, a cooking tool used by the people of Mexico for generations.

What is a comal?

A comal is a fairly important tool in Mexican cuisine, acting as the beating heart of the kitchen when in use. Ancient Cookware describes the comal as a round, smooth-surfaced griddle. Modern comals can be used on a stovetop or gas burner, but traditionally, this flat-topped cookware was elevated over an open fire to heat the material.

Masienda says comals were made of clay earthenware (the most accessible resource) at the time of their invention in Oaxaca — thousands of years before modern-day materials were made available. The creation of the tortilla and the comal are believed to go neatly hand in hand. A new and important food was born, so the Indigenous people of Mexico and Central America made a whole new tool to cook it on. 

The comal is meant to roast, toast, and puff up different foods, including meats, vegetables, and bread, per Masienda. And today, while many are still made from ceramic clay, some comals are made with cast iron and copper.

Clay vs cast iron

Clay comals are the most traditional kinds of the cookware, but when cast iron became more and more popular in the Western world, the comal changed. Oh sure, comals are still made using ceramic, but the original comal now competes with cast iron and at-home cooks and chefs have to decide whether they prefer one kind over the other. According to Cook's Info, the comparatively new metal comals are markedly less delicate and easy to break than their clay counterparts. The metal versions look like a frying pan with no rim and their texture is rough compared to the clay. They tend to warm up faster and conduct heat evenly over the surface of the comal, but, like with other cast iron tools, they need to be properly seasoned and re-seasoned to keep them in good condition.

On the other hand, clay comals do not require seasoning. And though they might be a bit more breakable, they do have their own bonuses. They are much lighter than their cast iron counterparts, and Poctli tells us they retain heat better. Why is that important? Well, they may not heat up as fast as metal utensils, but earthenware clay comals take longer to cool down and maintain three times the amount of heat than the metal kind. So, even if you turn down the flame, the comal will retain the same temperature for a long time.

Recipes that use it

A comal is a necessity if you are committed to and serious about making high-quality, authentic Mexican food. Whether you choose the clay or metal comal, you'll be able to make traditional versions of tortillas, mextlapiques, cooked meats, and tamales, and it will allow you to roast veggies for fillings and salsas as well (via Food52). All in all, it is essential to making all kinds of Mexican recipes, some you might not even consider until you try them out on the comal and find that they just taste better.

According to MasterClass, there are several ways to use a comal to cook a variety of foods. But basics first: To use the comal, you must place it over a gas stove top or fire like a griddle. Depending on the material of your comal, it may heat up slowly or quickly. To cook tortillas on the comal, you will press the dough (masa) flat onto the comal. The bread should puff up indicating that the water in the dough has evaporated. For dry-roasting chiles and veggies, you can simply place the food on top of the comal until the skin softens and blisters black. And if you are making carne asada, you can oil the comal and cook the raw meat in the center of the disk.

Buying a comal

As you can see, the comal can be used for just about everything, and you can purchase your own pan online or at stores specializing in Mexican cookware. According to Mexico Newsletter, Amazon is a great place to purchase both clay and cast iron traditional Mexican comals, as well as comal-inspired griddles that are perfect for cooking tortillas. Kitchen Ambition suggests purchasing either the Lodge Cast Iron Griddle, Le Creuset Enameled Cast Iron Crepe Pan and Comal, or the Victoria 15-Inch Cast Iron Comal, all of which are high quality.

But each kitchen has different needs, some people only cook for two, while others cook for households of six or more. So, picking your comal will truly depend on your personal budget and how much surface area you need to cook with. MexGrocer is also a great site to buy a comal. It offers a variety of cooking tools made with cast iron, stainless steel, and aluminum in different sizes and shapes. Their comals, like many others, are sold unglazed, so be sure to season them before using.