The ancient tool known as the “mortar and pestle” has been humankind’s best friend in the kitchen, or by the campfire, for thousands of years. Perhaps best known for grinding coarse spices and reducing larger ingredients into powders, the mortar and pestle has a surprisingly high amount of versatility for a tool so simple.
Choosing the perfect mortar and pestle starts with picking the right material and size. There is no “right” or “wrong” material or size, but some materials will be more effective than others, and the size of the tool will be dependent on what you plan to use your mortar and pestle for.
From grinding up a few spices to being the life of the party holding the sacred guacamole inside, there’s a size for everyone. We will discuss all things related to a mortar and pestle, from its primary uses, to the different types, to which one is optimal for which tasks, while answering other relevant questions about this versatile tool.
What is a Mortar and Pestle?
As mentioned above, a mortar and pestle are ancient devices used in the kitchen to crush or grind ingredients to make them into a paste or powder. The mortar is generally a bowl that can be made of different types of materials, including ceramic, granite, metal, or wood. It is always paired with a pestle, which is a heavy, blunt stick-shaped item. To use a mortar and pestle, you usually put the ingredients you wish to pulverize in the mortar, and use the pestle to smash it up into the desired paste or powder.
Picking the Right Mortar and Pestle
Picking a mortar and pestle starts with some basic knowledge of what to look for. Here are some preliminary points to keep in mind:
- A mortar with an unpolished inside will grind things up—especially wet ingredients—better than a smooth interior. Many mortars are polished and smoothed on the outside, but remain coarse inside. Make sure to check the interior of your mortar and pestle to make sure it’s the texture you want.
- Mortars that are cupped like a wine glass instead of having hard edges are easier to navigate with a pestle. Hard edges get ingredients stuck in the corners and make it difficult to find a consistent blending between your ingredients.
- A pestle with a larger head will be better for breaking ingredients up because of the bigger surface area, and heavier weight, which will also help to get the crushing done faster.
Choosing The Materials That are Best for You
Mortar and pestles can be made from many different materials, such as stone, metal, various species of wood, ceramic, and other less common materials. It’s hard to find a material that hasn’t been used to make a mortar and pestle.
We will cover the most common materials used for mortar and pestles and highlight some of their useful characteristics.
Stone is the ancient material used for the “OG” mortars and pestles. Stone mortars and pestles pack a punch with their heavyweight materials and versatility. The main types of stone used to make mortars and pestles are agate, granite, and marble.
Granite mortars and pestles are naturally coarse and heavier than most other materials. The benefit of a granite mortar and pestle is that after the ingredients have been pulverized by a granite head against a granite bowl, your ingredients will, quite literally, be ground into a pulp.
If the inside of the mortar is not smoothed—it usually isn’t—it will be a little difficult to get all of your seasoning or guacamole into another bowl, because some of the food will stick to the sides. Otherwise, these granite mortars and pestles are durable, reliable, and will absolutely do the job for you.
Marble mortars and pestles are generally smooth inside and out. Like granite, they are versatile but the ingredients do not have a coarse wall to rub against so they will not always break up as well.
Still, marble mortars and pestles are durable and should do an adequate job of grinding up ingredients. They are also very easy to clean because of their smooth, polished surfaces.
A little less common than granite and marble, agate mortars and pestles share many similarities with the marble ones in particular. Agate mortars and pestles generally possess a smooth internal and external surface and perform similarly to other smoothed rock ones.
There is an additional popular stone mortar and pestle called a molcajete. Molcajete mortars and pestles originated in Mexico and are usually composed of lava rock, although they can be made from other materials such as granite or basalt.
Molcajetes are typically wider and often shorter than other mortars and pestles. You may see them at a Mexican restaurant, as they are often used to make guacamole and salsa.
Steel mortars and pestles are smooth, easy to clean, and durable. While they might not have the best edges for grinding up challenging ingredients, they can still do the job pretty well. However, they are one of the noisier mortars and pestles out there.
Mortars and pestles made of brass originated in India. They are generally small and tend to have sharper edges. Overall, they are like those made of steel.
Mortars and pestles can be made of several different types of wood: bamboo, acacia, olive, and many others. Wood ones are nice to look at, but some of them can be flimsy and difficult to properly grind up ingredients.
Still, others are durable and dense and will perform well. Look for ones that are made with strength in mind, like walnut ones, which can be very strong.
Perhaps the most notable wood mortar and pestle is called a “suribachi” bowl. These crafted wooden mortars and pestles are typically made from Japanese ash trees. What’s unique about a suribachi bowl is that the inside of the bowl has many groves that resemble a ridged potato chip.
The soft serrated interior makes quick work of any ingredient pressed into it. Additionally, they are usually quite beautiful and resemble something artisanal and handcrafted.
Other materials used to make mortars and pestles are ceramic, clay, and other types of metal—like iron.
Ceramic mortars and pestles are often noisy and some complain that the ingredients slip too easily when under the pressure of the pestle because of the very smooth surface. Clay mortars and pestles are artisanal and they produce the least amount of sound of all the materials. Many Thai mortars and pestles are made of clay,
If you are curious about which materials are the best, know that there are many different kinds for a reason. Overall, granite seems to be the most popular, effective, and versatile material, but any mortar and pestle can grind seasonings and perform basic tasks. If you are just getting started, there’s not really a wrong choice when it comes to choosing what material your mortar and pestle are made out of. The right material and size for you will largely depend on what you plan to use the mortar and pestle for.
Choosing the Right Size Mortar and Pestle
There are several sizes to pick from when choosing a mortar and pestle. There are small, somewhat shallow, 3-4-inch (diameter) mortars, there is the average size of about 6 inches—which can hold around 2 cups of ingredients—and then there is the 8-inch mortar, which holds around 5 cups. There are some outliers, both bigger and smaller, but these three are the average size ranges.
Which size of mortar and pestle should you choose? For most people, that average size of around 6 inches in diameter will meet all the needs that can arise in the kitchen.
Keep in mind, the best size of mortar and pestle depends on what you are going to be making and the quantity of ingredients that will be processed. If you are only going to be grinding up spices and nothing more, then the smallest mortars and pestles can be perfect. But, if you are making salsa for a party of 20 people, then maybe you should get the biggest mortar and pestle you can find.
A substantial amount of food can still fit into the 6-inch mortar, and it is not so big that spices and other ingredients cannot be easily ground up either. So the 6-inch mortar and pestle should meet the need of most home cooks.
How Long do Mortars and Pestles Last?
While there is no guaranteed length of time that a mortar and pestle will last (except by the warranty), if they are made well, they should last a long time. Most of them are made of stone, which is extremely durable. Marble, granite, metals, and even the wood ones should all last you upwards of several years.
The wood ones will probably wear down faster, especially being repeatedly exposed to water and many of the wood ones tend to be thinner. Other wood ones, like walnut and olive, will be exceptionally durable, but you may have to spend extra money for more durable species of wood.
If you buy from a trusted and quality manufacturer, there’s no reason why a mortar and pestle shouldn’t last you many years.
Do They Need To Be Seasoned?
Most mortars and pestles need to be seasoned. Those made of stone are more likely to have a rough interior, and they especially need to be seasoned before use. There are a couple of different ways to season a mortar and pestle, the most common being putting rice and water into the mortar and breaking it down into a paste with the pestle.
Grinding the pestle into all the sides of the mortar allows all the loose pieces of stone to be etched out, often leaving the rice a shade of black for the first two or three times it is seasoned. After treating the mortar with rice at least twice, the edges should be clean, after which the mortar and pestle can be used.
Some, however, elect to further season the mortar by grinding up a combination of spices, usually with fresh garlic being one of them, as a second seasoning. This infuses the mortar and pestle with flavor replacing the sandy, rocky taste that sometimes comes with them when they are brand new. After you season your mortar and pestle once, as long as you are putting it to use regularly, you probably won’t have to re-season it.
Other mortars and pestles that are not made of stone, such as ceramic, metal, or wood, do not necessarily need to be seasoned in the same way as the stone ones. Ceramic, metal, and wood mortars and pestles usually come with a smooth interior and only require a thorough wipe down or wash before use.
It won’t hurt to give non-stone mortar and pestle the rice treatment, as it is a deep cleaning method and ensures that your mortar and pestle will be clean and ready to use.
If you want to infuse the mortar and pestle with some flavor, giving it the spice treatment will give it a little kick.
What are Mortars and Pestles Used For?
Mortars and pestles are most commonly associated with breaking and grinding up different spices. While this is one of their primary uses, mortars and pestles have historically also been known for other uses, such as for pharmaceutical and medicinal purposes, where physicians would grind up ingredients with healing properties, such as plants, to make medicine.
Additionally, they were also used in ancient alchemical processes like making potions and experimental liquids. This is one of the reasons they are featured in some video games that take place in medieval times—such as The Elder Scrolls—which permit the player to experiment with ingredients and make different healing, strengthening, or poisonous potions.
While you are probably not going to be making potions in the kitchen, it is nice to know that you can!
Everyday Uses for this Nifty Tool
In the kitchen, a mortar and pestle has many modern uses: from making dressings to various sauces—such as fillings, pastes, salsas, etc.—to mushing things together that need mushing, mortars and pestles allow you to form unique and delicious combinations of ingredients that enhance your cooking and eating experience.
When it comes to spices, a mortar and pestle can easily grind up peppercorn into freshly ground pepper, garlic into a puree, or combine a handful of different spices into a rub.
Dressings can be made with freshly ground basil or mint with added seasonings and oils. Salsa is a particular specialty of the mortar and pestle, where the texture and consistency can be easily controlled, allowing for a much wider variety of salsa flavors and textures than another tool or a store-bought version might be able to provide.
While a mortar and pestle is not the only tool you need for a complete kitchen, it is extremely versatile and allows any home cook to up their cooking game.
Are Mortars and Pestles Necessary in the Kitchen?
When we hear the words “mortar and pestle” what comes to mind is probably an image of a fancy chef in a fancy restaurant kitchen, making French dishes from scratch. While it is true that mortars and pestles are more often used by professional chefs, a mortar and pestle do not require any prior experience or expertise to use.
So, is it necessary to have a mortar and pestle in your kitchen? Like most things in life, it depends.
If you mostly live off of frozen pizzas and takeout, then a mortar and pestle is probably not going to be necessary for you. If you love cooking or just want to expand your abilities in the kitchen, then you should consider investing in one.
Most of us live somewhere in between the Chinese takeout-for-every-meal life, and the life of a dedicated home chef who refuses to buy anything premade.
A mortar and pestle is best for those who are making at least a handful of meals every week from scratch.
What Appliances Can Be Used Instead Of Mortars And Pestles?
A food processor or blender are common kitchen tool alternatives for a mortar and pestle. When making large amounts of food, a food processor will save a few headaches because you don’t have to sit there and grind two pounds of nuts by hand. But, a mortar and pestle lets you better control the texture of your ingredients, as well as making you feel like a true artisanal cook!
A few other alternatives to mortars and pestles are spice grinders, which are extremely effective at processing spices into fine powders, and even a rolling pin. Spice grinders can be both manual or electric. While the manual ones are inexpensive, the electric ones, like a food processor, will typically cost quite a bit of money, but in exchange will provide a lot more power and take less time to grind.
Lastly, you can even use a rolling pin instead of a mortar and pestle. A rolling pin can break down larger ingredients as long as it rolls against a hard surface. The downside of using a rolling pin is that ingredients can fly everywhere when rolled since they aren’t contained in a bowl-like structure.
The benefit of a mortar and pestle over a spice grinder or rolling pin is that they are more versatile, ensuring that you have the right tool for any job.