Beloved by cooks around the world, the mortar and pestle may be the one tool most of us in the USA don’t have taking up space on the kitchen counter. Got to leave room for the cake pop maker, right? From grinding spices to making pesto and salsas, it’s an essential tool that predates electricity but still works wonders. Get ready to build up some arm strength — after you learn more about everything a mortar and pestle can do, there’s no way you’ll be able to resist adding one to your kitchen.

Why Choose a Mortar & Pestle?

Even if you already have a food processor, you still want to invest in a mortar and pestle. Why? First of all, you have more control — pesto and other sauces can remain looser and slightly rustic instead of being blitzed into a homogenous paste, so each bite is more dynamic. Secondly, the mortar and pestle can actually coax out more essential oils and flavors from your ingredients by evenly crushing the cell walls, without developing the bitterness that comes from food processors and blenders, which rely on blades to speedily chop and slice into your ingredients. Third? It’s just fun to use! Using a mortar and pestle really lets you get a feel for your food, and helps you immerse yourself in every recipe (and let off some steam after a rough day).

How to Use a Mortar and Pestle

There are several different techniques to using a mortar and pestle, but here are the basics.

Begin by adding your ingredients in small amounts, starting with the hardest items (for instance, peppercorns). Use the pestle to gently pound the ingredients — let its own weight do most of the work for you. Once the ingredient has broken down, you can use a grinding motion to make the particles in the mortar even finer. Continue adding more of the ingredient, until you’ve successfully processed all that the recipe calls for.

Then, you can add your next layer of flavors — think garlic, ginger, citrus zest, and chilies. Finish with your delicate herbs, which break down rather quickly, and your liquids, to bring everything together. And here’s a tip — add a pinch of salt to your mortar when crushing garlic to help it break down more quickly.

Use your mortar and pestle for:

  • Grinding spices to make custom blends and meat rubs
  • Mixing up marinades
  • Making pesto
  • Creating creamy guacamole
  • Coaxing flavor from curry paste
  • Crushing nuts to use in sauces or as toppings

Different Types of Mortar and Pestle

There are a few different types of mortar and pestle, and each has a different use.

To get the most bang for your buck, we recommend a Thai-style granite mortar and pestle. It’s heavy, which means it won’t go flying off the counter when you use it, and the weight of the pestle is enough that it helps you with the smashing, but doesn’t fatigue your arm too quickly. The interior has a slightly rough texture that helps break ingredients down, but isn’t as rough as a Mexican molcajete, which can sometimes be difficult to keep clean.

Wooden mortar and pestle are gorgeous, but the wood is porous, and absorbs the flavors you work into it. These are best used if you plan on just making pesto or another single sauce, because otherwise, the flavor of your mortar will affect the flavor of what you make in it next.

Ceramic mortar and pestle can be fragile, and sometimes chip or flake if you smash your ingredients too vigorously. They’re better for making more delicate mixtures.

Regardless of the material, make sure your mortar and pestle set is big enough to be practical — you don’t want to be fretting about things being pushed out while you pound them. Choose one that’s at least six inches in diameter and relatively deep, which will help keep ingredients from escaping.

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(Photo via Waratharn/Pixabay)