It’s the one cooking utensil that no one thinks they really need, but it’s also the one that leads to the most robust flavors and mouthwatering dishes: a mortar and pestle.
You might be considering a set for the flair it will add to your kitchen, but these handy devices have been used longer than you think. And they really do add a certain something to the flavor of your cooking.
But is it right for you and how do you know which one to buy? From giving yourself the go-ahead to deciding on the perfect type, our article will take you through it all.
Here’s a quick link to skip ahead to the different types of mortars an pestles. Otherwise read on for some extensive background information about this unique kitchen tool.
Many people are drawn to the mortar and pestle because of the old-world atmosphere it exudes. It brings to mind ancient medicines, apothecaries and a time with horses and knights.
In reality, grinding using a mortar and pestle goes back much further than the times of chivalry.
In varying forms and with a multitude of materials, these tools have been used since the time of the Egyptians. In fact, they are even mentioned in the oldest known medical document and in the Bible.
Is a Mortar and Pestle Right for Me?
Many consumers are hesitant to purchase a mortar and pestle because they aren’t positive they’ll use it. After all, if you buy one you’re going to want to do more than admire it.
To answer this question, you must consider your personal lifestyle. These grinding instruments have a plethora of advantages we’ll get into shortly, but they are ideal for a number of different individuals:
- Those who love to cook
- Anyone interested in making something from scratch
- Families that love pastes, spiced blends and dressing
- Individuals who create homemade medicines
- Pet owners who require easy-to-eat food for their furry children
- People who enjoy authentic or culturally diverse foods
As you can see, many types of people (and animals) benefit from the use of a mortar and pestle.
In the kitchen alone, they are an easy way to crack spices and peppercorn, crush herbs and grind roots.
If you’re starting to get excited, this option’s right for you.
Why You Need One
You might be asking yourself if you should bother scrounging up the extra cash. After all, you can cut or mash just fine with knives or other instruments, right?
A mortar and pestle offer more benefits than most people think. And if you believe they’re outdated, think again. The instrument is used by professional chefs across the world.
Yes, you will actually experience better flavors and consistency in your food. Rather than the spinning and cutting accomplished by a blender, the instrument smashes ingredients into each other, releasing essential oils and forcing all ingredients to absorb the flavor.
“For example, you can really taste the basil, the pine nuts, and the garlic in a pesto made in a mortar and pestle,” says Ashley Nunez, creator of junkfoodkids.com.
It’s for this reason the kitchen utensil is a staple part of culturally diverse foods. Cuban food, for instance, relies on garlic, onions and cumin for many recipes. To truly experience the flavors these ingredients offer, grinding rather than cutting is necessary.
Mortar and pestles are easy to use, although they do require effort on the cook’s part. And the efficiency is palpable. You’ll crush and mix things quicker and easier.
But the ease of use is nothing compared to the versatility. There are types for anything and everything you could think of making: pastes, pestos, dressings, medicines, powders, spice blends and more.
In addition, most are easy to clean. Owners need only scrub it under warm water most of the time, although occasional deep scrubs with rice may be necessary to remove lingering scents or tastes.
Regardless of your price range, there’s a pestle and mortar for you. Prices range from $10 to thousands of dollars depending on the brand and type.
If you invest in this kitchen addition, you’ll get your money’s worth. The right mortar and pestle set lasts for generations. As such, they’re great tools to hand down to your children and grandchildren.
Finally, owning and using a mortar and pestle provides a deeper connection to the food being made. For many passionate about culinary arts, it’s a mid-cooking type of yoga.
After interviewing cookbook author Adam Roberts, NPR’s Deena Prichep wrote, “The point is to see cooking not just as something to get through, so that you can put your feet up and relax when you’re done. It’s about actually relaxing and enjoying the process of cooking itself.”
How to Use
Using mortar and pestles is easy! Many people make the mistake of hammering their food with the pestle. Instead, think of rocking.
Move the food into the center of the mortar with the pestle, then crush it using a rocking motion. This technique should be used with harder ingredients.
Bashing is a possibility, too. For large seeds or other foods, this is effective at bursting through hard outer layers. Use short, quick thrusts to apply the pestle’s broad end.
For softer foods, liquids or pastes, use a muddling motion. Gently apply the pestle to the food, almost as if you’re pressing a paintbrush to the same area in an up and down motion over and over. Don’t scrape; lift the pestle each time before starting again.
You have an idea of the types offered, whether a mortar and pestle is right for you and how to use it. Now it’s time to discuss what you need to consider before making your purchase.
What will you use your set for? This impacts the type you choose and the size. If you plan to create elaborate meals for family get-togethers, you’ll probably want a larger, deeper mortar. However, if you’re going to use it to make pastes for one or two meals, a softer material, and smaller set is ideal.
Weight and Size
Consider your kitchen and yourself here. Are you physically capable of handling a heavy mortar or is something lighter up your alley? Some sets weigh around 20 pounds.
Also, think about your kitchen and countertops. If you have a heavier set, use some protection to avoid scuffing any tables, countertops or other surfaces.
Size plays a factor, too. Do you have the counter space or cupboard room for a sizeable set?
Depths and Curves
Check out the shape of the mortar. Bowl-shaped ones are great for mixing liquids, pestos or other foods. Cup-shaped mortars are conducive for grinding harder substances.
In addition to the shape, be sure to consider the depth of the bowl. Try to pick one that’s at least three inches deep.
Mess and flying food is a hazard associated with this cookware, so if you plan to crush or mix more substances, deeper is better.
Aim for a minimum six-inch diameter for an all ’rounder. This size lets you crush small, fine ingredients or large, bulky ones.
Again, consider the amount of food you’ll pulverize or mix before making a decision.
Remember: rough textures mean more cleaning but easier grinding while smooth textures are easy to care for but harder to use. If you’re not the agilest cook, a better grip will make your grinding life easier.
Beginners may be comfortable with a smooth but durable material, such as marble or some stones, to find a good balance between the two.
If you can’t stand lingering scents, stay away from very rough textures. While most can be eliminated through vigorous scrubbing with rice, having a sensitive nose is sure to change your love for a roughly-textured set into a fiery hate.
Keep in mind, you can always use other methods to remove cooking smells from your home, but the scent around the set will remain.
Stone is great for beginners. It’s easy to wash and durable, so you won’t have to worry about harming the cookware.
If you already have a mortar and pestle at home or are considering buying multiple ones, contemplate a support system. A stone set pairs great with a glass or marble type because it gives owners even more versatility.
The main concern for material type is maintenance. Always check to see how a set should be cleaned, as every material requires different methods and levels of maintenance.
Types to Add to Your Kitchen
Any number of materials are used to create mortar and pestles. Here, we’ll cover the common types.
Mortar and Pestles can be made out of a variety of organic materials. Common types include:
- acacia wood
- olive wood
They look remarkable sitting on a kitchen countertop, but wood types aren’t for the faint of heart. They’re excellent for retaining flavors that create a gradual buildup of tastes in your food, but that also means you have to be careful what you grind. They have more give than other materials, meaning particularly hard substances might not grind as well as it would in a different type of bowl.
Since wood is lighter than stone or ceramic you will find yourself doing a little more work to crush or grind your ingredients. If you are looking to make fine powders then check out some of the more heavy duty materials used for mortar and pestle construction.
>The best uses for a wooden mortar and pestle are to crush peanuts into small chunks or to crush garlic. If you have a set that is large enough you can probably make your entire spicy papaya salad in it before serving.
The wooden pieces require careful cleaning and they should be dried immediately. We recommend using plain soap and water. Keep it out of the dishwasher since temperatures are super hot and the cycle keeps the wooden pieces wet much longer than washing by hand.
After washing some wooden sets recommend wiping a small amount of olive oil over the surfaces to restore the finish to the wood.
If you are looking for a mortar and pestle that works well and has a simple design then check out the Home Basics Mortar and Pestle made from bamboo.
When it comes to wooden mortar and pestles there is a huge variety in material and appearance. The list below is a diverse selection available on Amazon.
Porcelain looks elegant and are ideal for grinding herbs and spices. Unlike their wooden counterparts, these sets are generally fine for the dishwasher. Additionally, you do not need to be as diligent about drying them off.
One of the most common materials a mortar and pestle can be made from is porcelain. The flat, white surfaces are what come to mind for most people when they think of these tools.
A downside to the blank slate surface of white porcelain is that stains become much more noticeable. If you know this will bother you, just be forewarned and start looking for a darker color!
As long as you keep your kitchen neat and work carefully, these stains should be confined to the inside of the mortar bowl and the grinding bottom of the pestle.
If you are willing to accept this compromise then check out these traditional white porcelain sets.
EZ-Grip Silicone & Porcelain Mortar and Pestle – this mortar has a non-slip bottom to keep it from sliding on your counter and the pestle has a non-slip handle that is great if your hands are wet (as they often are in the kitchen)
HIC Mortar and Pestle with Pour Spout – depending on what you are making the pour spout can really come in handy. The spout does add a little to the price tag but this set is in the middle of the pack for ceramic mortar and pestles.
Fox Run 6240 Porcelain Mortar & Pestle – Fox Run makes a number of different mortar and pestles. This one is the basic model and comes in at the lowest price point.
Granite mortar and pestles, which we talk about later in this article, offer a lot of the advantages that the ceramic ones do. They are also much darker in color and will not accumulate stains in the same way.
Sure, glass mortar and pestles are fragile, but they make an excellent backup for the mortar and pestle you use for heavy lifting. Generally these are found in a lab setting. However, you can also use them to add a unique minimalist look to your kitchen.
Because of the material, these types are best used with liquids or colorful foods you’re afraid will stain other cookware. They offer the same utility that a ceramic set will.
When considering a glass mortar and pestle be sure to look for one that is made of borosilicate glass and not soda lime.
Borosilicate glass is mechanically stronger and much more resistant to acids. Both of these qualities are very important to materials that come into contact with your food.
Check out this curated list of borosilicate glass mortar and pestles.
Deschem 90mm Glass Mortar and Pestle – This borosilicate mortar and pestle is just over 3.5 inches across. It has a footed base which adds stability during use.
Glass mortar and pestle with spout – If you need extra accuracy and control along with acid resistance then check out this borosilicate set. The mortar has a spout to help you out.
Marble offers the same features that you would find in a ceramic mortar and pestle, so we will not spend much time describing them.
They are unique when it comes to their appearance. Marble offers some beautiful options. For the most part they are white, black or grey with varying amounts of granite in them.
Here is a short list with a variety of color options.
HIC Footed Mortar and Pestle Set – Solid Carrara Marble
Evco Marble Mortar/Pestle – Dark green
Granite and Molcajete
These types are great for a variety of purposes, granite types are popular in Thailand while the molcajete is traditionally Mexican. The rough texture, characteristic of a volcanic stone, allows easy grinding and they can be used with all types of ingredients.
Additionally, these volcanic stone pestles are much heavier than other types because they are bigger. The extra heft makes granite a great choice for making pastes or grinding nuts and other hard food items.
When it comes to care and cleaning, volcanic rock mortar and pestle gets a little complicated. Granite is prone to staining if acidic or oily foods are ground within the bowl.
Some people say the use of mild detergents is fine on granite while others think the soap may get stuck in the material and contaminate whatever you grind next.
Personally, I clean mine by grinding uncooked rice in it. Just grind about two tablespoons of white rice. If the rice picks up a color then dump it out and add new rice. Once the rice stays clean after grinding, rinse it out with warm water and dry with a cloth.
Coarse salt will also get the job done.
If that process sounds like too much work, check out other materials for your mortar and pestle. If you are looking for a heavy duty set then take a look at the links below.
*The links below only contain unpolished sets. A polished granite mortar and pestle works just like a ceramic or marble one would.
ChefSofi Mortar and Pestle Set – This one comes with a felt pad you can add to the bottom of the mortar to protect your countertops from scratching.
Granite Mortar and Pestle by HiCoup – HiCoup advertises this set as dishwasher safe. Obviously they do not think detergents can get stuck in the granite.
Vasconia 4-Cup Granite Molcajete Mortar and Pestle – This is one of the bigger mortar and pestle sets out there. At just under 8 inches wide you can grind quite a lot of food in this mortar.
Cast iron is a great material for crushing hard and fibrous ingredients. Much like their volcanic rock counterparts, these heavier implements can make short work of pretty much anything you throw at, or rather in them.
Much like cast iron skillets, there are some additional considerations when using a cast iron mortar and pestle. They can rust and they do not do well when exposed to acids.
After use and cleaning, be sure to dry every bit of moisture off and rub with a very thin layer of oil. We recommend grapeseed oil since it is colorless and tasteless.
Also, if you use acidic foods with cast iron they can strip off significant amounts of iron. This excess iron then gets into your food. While some people debate this when it comes to cast iron skillets, your mortar and pestle does not build up the same kind of seasoning because it is not exposed to heat.
In light of these drawbacks, a cast iron mortar and pestle can be a unique addition to any kitchen.
This Japanese earthenware is used for a plethora of ingredients to make pastes:
- Fish and other meats
Its ridged interior is ideal for making pesto, as well. The ridges are great for grinding foods in a predictable and consistent manner.
It’s All About You
A mortar and pestle set not only quietly says “authentic” sitting on your countertop, but it also creates the best food you can eat. They come packed with possibilities.
However, choosing the right one for you and your kitchen requires some contemplation and insight.
We know once you purchase the perfect addition to your kitchen, you’ll be cooking like mad. That’s why you should read our article about oil warmers.
Let’s face it: cooking stinks. Sometimes the smell is pleasant, and other times it leaves a nasty after-scent. For those scenarios, you need an oil warmer.
Cooking, smells and delicious tastes aside, if you read this article start to finish, you need a grinding set. Mortar and pestles offer a deeper connection to cooking than automatic machines, an engagement lacking in today’s hurried world.
So get out there and purchase one today. It’s grinding time.