An Underused Kitchen Tool.
I have a new tool in my kitchen. A tool for mashing and grinding, or as Jamie Oliver calls it bashing and muddling. I’m learning to use a mortar and pestle. This ancient kitchen tool will allow me to create wonderful, healthy foods and bring out the essential oils, and flavor essences of my herbs and spices, in a natural way. I like that idea.
Discover More About Using a Mortar and Pestle Here
I also consider it an effective tool to use when the power goes out. Just as I have a hand grinder for wheat, I now have a hand food processor.
A small glass or porcelain set will be good to grind tablets and medications. Used as a kitchen tool I can make sauces and mix spices with it. I purchased two different kinds; a small porcelain set with three bowls and pestles of different sizes, PLUS a large, heavy, granite set with a three cup capacity mortar. This should let me create anything I want!
Just so you know – the word mortar comes from the Latin word mortarium, which means “receptacle for pounding” and pestle comes from the Latin word pestillum, meaning “pounder”
How to Choose a Great Mortar and Pestle
Not all mortars and pestles are created equal. While some are amazing at what they do and can last for a lifetime, with proper care, others will just make you wish you never shelled the money.
Size. A general purpose mortar should be large (6 to 8 inches in diameter). If you want one for smaller tasks, such as just crushing garlic, you can get a smaller one.
Texture & Materials. A great mortar and pestle should be made of rough, matte materials but not too rough as you don't want it to be too porous when making oily pastes, such as Italian pesto or chili oil.
Materials. Steer clear of mortars that are too smooth such as porcelain or ceramic. The best mortars and pestles are made of heavy duty granite or marble. Wood is a great option too but it will retain smells and aroma, so it is best used for specific tasks only.
Shape. Look for mortars with a deep, round shape. You need to find a product that keeps ingredients in place rather than allowing them to jump all around the kitchen floor. Also, the base should be wider, as if it is too round it will not contain slippery ingredients as well.
Here's a side-by-side comparison of the most popular mortars and pestles right now. However, don't take Chef Daniel's review as gospel since the jury is still out on what you should be looking in a general purpose mortar and pestle.
Before You Use Your New Mortar and Pestle the First Time
Just like a new dutch oven, you need to clean and season your new mortar and pestle. This process will clean out the stone dust that is inherently left during the manufacturing process.
- Wash it in clean water, without detergent and let it air dry. In fact, you should never wash it with soap unless you want your fantastic creations tainted with it. You should always begin using it when it’s dry, a wet mortar might gum up your dry ingredients.
- Roughly grind a small handful of white rice. Discard and repeat until the rice grinds white. It will take several grinds. If you have a white mortar and pestle, plan on grinding three times. This is somewhat cumbersome in the small mortars but is great practice and you should be a grinding pro by the time you’re done. If your mortar has a tendency to slip on the counter while you are learning, put a non-skid shelf liner under it.
- Next, add 4 cloves of garlic, then mash and muddle it together.
- Add 1 teaspoon cumin, 1 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon pepper to the garlic. Grind it all together, enjoy the smells, and discard.
- Wash it again in clean water, without soap, and air dry.
In their book, Alchemy of the Mortar & Pestle, D & P Gramp suggest this rule of thumb when adding ingredients to a recipe:
- Driest ingredients first (dried herbs and spices, flour, etc.)
- Moist ones next (garlic, onion, brown sugar, fresh herbs, etc.)
- Oily ones next (anchovy, nuts, oils, cheese, butter, etc)
- Wet ones next (lemon juice, stock, vinegar, honey, soy, etc)
- Taste and add salt if needed
What Can You Make in a Mortar and Pestle?
Most everything! Many cultures have sued this simple tool for thousands of years.
- Do you have a simple sauce to create? Use your mortar and pestle.
- When you cook curries, spice mixes, pastes, and marinades; all these mix well by hand in a mortar and pestle.
- Herbal preparations work great too – mix teas, make poultices, lotions, and potions.
I’ve come to think that the mortar and pestle may be the ultimate food storage and first aid prep tool. It requires no power and is easy to clean. What could be better?
First Recipes to Get You Started
"There is no question we love owning our mortar and pestle, but…what…exactly…do we do with it now? The simple answer to this question, is either everything or nothing. We can enjoy looking at it or we try our hand at magic." – D & P Gramp
Here are some of the first things I’m going to make with my mortar and pestle. These will be great practice for all the creations ahead.
Berry Sauce – Any soft, seasonal berry can be crushed in a mortar. A few drops of balsamic vinegar will enhance their flavor and they can sit steeping for several hours. Use over ice cream or on pancakes. Spoon over desserts or put in tonic water for a cool treat.
Herb Salts – This couldn’t be easier and will help you get in your grinding practice. Use sea or flaked salt and dried herbs if you want to be able to store it for an extended time. If you will use it within a few days, use fresh or a combination of fresh and dried herbs.
Try thyme, marjoram, basil, parsley, celery, oregano, garlic, fennel, pepper, lemon verbena, cumin, coriander. Pick the recipes you like and experiment with small batches until you get several keepers. Most of all, be sure and write it down this wonderful recipe so you can create it again!
Insomnia Salve – Apply to both temples 1 hour prior to sleep. Used to induce relaxation and sleep, this may also induce vivid dreams!
- Grind together 1 tablespoon each of dried herbs- rosemary, lavender, mint, calendula and sage
- Add 1 tablespoon olive oil
- When thoroughly ground and mixed, add 2 or more tablespoons of softened beeswax
- Place in a small wide mouth jar to use
Jamie Oliver has an informative video about learning to use a mortar and pestle. He describes his bashing and muddling technique and gives you three easy recipes (which I’m definitely going to try.) He makes it look really easy, but I can tell you, grinding rice into flour takes practice!
The book Alchemy of the Mortar and Pestle by D & P Gramp is chock full of recipes and I’m glad I purchased it. Not only do they give some background on this wonderful tool, their recipes are easy to follow and really inspired me to try some creations of my own.
What will you make in your new mortar and pestle?
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I normally use a coffee grinder in place of these BUT these make a great backup along with being a great way to exercise those arms and shoulders. Who needs the gym?! 🙂
I have a coffee grinder too Dee, and I do use it, but the mortar and pestle let me mix it all in one group. I like how the flavors meld together.
Can a granite morter be heated to make a molcajete?
If I dont have cumin is there anything else I can use to season my mortar?
I have always wanted a mortar and pestle and just bought my first one the other day. I have yet to use it. I seen this page and now I’m really excited to use it. Thanks for the info, did not not know they needed to be seasoned first.
Have fun with it Staci!
shirl perry says
I just got one couple days ago as i have been wanting one..I came to this page to find out how to use it..Now i am ready to try some pink and some black himalayan salts and peppercorns..I have been useing a pepper mill but now its time for the m&p
I am trying to change my life style by eating more vegan or vegetarian dishes I purchased a cookbook that says to use a pestle and mortar. My question is according to this cook book I should buy two but it doesn’t say why. I’ll just be cooking for just myself..does anyone know why I should purchased two? I never used one before and donto see any reason to purchasensure two..thanks a bunch…
Have you seen the “Liberal, Vegan Prepper” FB page?
Will, I imagine the reason for two is that one can be used for sweets and the other for savory things so that flavors aren’t tainted
Just Judy says
I enjoy all your posts, but I really like this one. I’ve owned a mortar and pestle for many years, now I actually how how to use it. Thank you for that.
Wonderful Judy, glad to help!
I have wanted to use a mortor for a long time and finally saw one in a China shop for a price I couldn’t pass by. This page helped me break it in, thanks for that. I love the way using one makes me feel like I’m doing magic in the kitchen!
Hi Jeff, I agree with your analogy – using a mortar and pestle does make you feel like you’re doing magic in the kitchen. I recently used mine to make a paste for a batch of kimchi and the house smelled wonderful!
I received my new jamie Oliver pestle & mortar from ebay, new, and it’s really chalky. I kind-of twirled the pestle around in the mortar (bowl) and even more chalky substance came off into the bowl. Is this what will be in my food when I grind it up and is that even healthy. I’m even wondering that, if that’s not suppose to shed chalky dust like that, maybe I have a counterfeit bowl in a Jamie Oliver box. If that’s normal for a brand-new mortar set, what do I do to stop it from having so much chalky dust…or should I return it/toss it?
M. Kla valentine says
I want to build an electric cassava,yam and plantain pounding mortal to ease mama Afrika best dish fufu preparation … have the design but need the electrical and metal materials required…. aluminium or steel noncorrosive metals… n be able to set the motors in precise positions…….
I love my pestle and mortar and use it a lot for grinding spices, pur’eing garlic etc. However, I am wondering whether it has got smoother over the years, making it a little less efficient. Anyone have the same experience? (Mine looks very like the dark grey stone one in the picture)
Really useful information, but I wondered about the washing bit. I have just bought an old composition one that has lots of scuff marks on it. I was wondering how to clean it. My immediate reaction would be to get the scourer out, but I am having second thoughts. Any advice ?
I would give it a good scrubbing and then season it.
Kim in WI says
I have a Molcajete which is a true mortar & pestle that originated in Mexico. If you have the genuine thing, they are typically made from volcanic rock, and are passed down in families from generation to generation. In spite of popular belief, in true Mexican fashion, they are NOT used to make guacamole, but they are customarily used to make salsas and mole sauces. Volcanic rock is porous therefore these DO need to be seasoned before use.
The process involves soaking it in water overnight to loosen the dust and grit, rinsing it well, and then baking the Molcajete in the oven at a low temp to dry it out completely. Once dry, you would proceed to season it with rice repeatedly until you get a smooth surface and the rice is completely free of grit. From there, you would then start the seasoning process using garlic, onions, spices and herbs as was mentioned here.
With that said, I thought it would be worth mentioning that I also have two marble mortar & pestles, and since marble is impermeable it is not necessary to season these – it would be pointless.
Great information Kim! Thanks for stopping by.
Marble is most certainly not impermeable, and in fact stains quite easily. It’s more porous than granite. I have no idea if marble mortar and pestle’s need to be seasoned though.
I washed mine with soap and a scrub brush before reading all this “advice” online, and it’s fine. It saves a lot of time and work because you don’t need to grind rice into it over and over again. I can’t detect any off flavor. I think the best color to get is black because then you know for a fact your mortar is clean, and can see for yourself if you’re getting rocky sand in your food.
Peter Chan says
One thing that has always been worrying me about mortars & pestles . . .
While grinding the ingredients won’t the pestle inevitably grind against the interior surface of the mortar leaving fine dust of the granite/marble (or whatever material making the mortar/pestle) to infiltrate into the ingredients?
Yes, I suppose so Peter. They have been used for a long time, all around the world, so the amount must be negligible or people would not use it.
Peter Chan says
Oh I see.
Thanks for the reply, Shelle !
Kitchen gadgets says
This is a great article. I also think the mortar and pestle is a great kitchen gadget you should have at home. Not only for grinding spices and herb but for traditional meals as well. Good job.
Hello! Love your page – so much great information. Thank you! I am new to using a mortar and pestle. I plan on using it for more home made beauty products (soaps, oils etc.). Do you still have to season it depending on how you plan to use it. I am nervous about using garlic and the smell sticking to it. Sorry for the goofy questions, very new to natural remedies.
Alvy, I always season mine. You should at least process some herbs in it to help remove any grit.
Hi. Your article is wonderful, but it is unclear weather to totally discard the rice after grinding, then grind the other spices separately or combine spices with ground rice. Could you please clarify. Ty in advance….JO
Do you have to seal the new pestle with anything before using it?
and if not, what does grinding the rice do? why rice?
I wish I could read what you’ve written. Light gray text on white can’t be read by many, including me.
Love reading, but the main body of text is so light gray I can not see it very well. Please darken against the white background. Thanks