The Mortar & Pestle: Ancient Tool, Modern Usage
A mortar and pestle, a heavy bowl or cup and a hand-held crushing and grinding implement, is considered by many to be the oldest kitchen tool in the world.1 Archaeologists have found evidence of these tools from as far back as 35,000 BC, with the earliest versions consisting of a depression in a large slab of rock and a 'handstone' used to grind ingredients for food, such as wild wheat and oats.2 They were also commonly used by apothecaries and are even mentioned in the Ebers Papyrus, the oldest preserved piece of medical literature, which dates back to 1550 B.C.3
You might think that such an ancient tool would have no place in a modern kitchen, but that is not entirely true. While we now have blenders and food processors to replace some of the mortar and pestle's usage, many modern chefs still prefer to use the older tool when possible. While there have been no major changes to the ancient design, there are several features and materials to consider when purchasing a mortar and pestle.
Materials & Construction
The material of a mortar and pestle set can greatly impact how it is used. If the material is too slick, grinding may be difficult, but if it is too porous, it can be difficult to clean and can retain flavors. The mortar material's strength can also determine how much of an impact it can take. The most common materials used are:
- Ceramic: While ceramic is relatively fragile when compared to other mortar types, meaning it cannot be pounded on, its texture makes it ideal for grinding ingredients into a fine powder or paste. This material is also usually dishwasher-safe, making cleanup simple.
- Wood: Wood's porous nature means that it can be stained and can sometimes hold flavors that carry over into later mixes. Wood is also the softest of the materials used and, in some cases, may be ineffective for particularly hard dried spices. These are often the most budget-friendly option, and some prefer wood mortars for their aesthetic appeal.
- Lava Rock: A specific type of mortar and pestle called a molcajete originated in Central America and is made out of vesicular basalt, or lava rock. This is the preferred material for making traditional dishes such as salsa and guacamole in, but its very porous nature makes it poorly suited for liquids. These can also have an uneven surface, and because of this need to be seasoned or 'broken in' before they can be used.
- Granite: Granite can be ground down to a smoother finish than lava rock, but it still has a bit of texture, making this the preferred material of many chefs. However, it is also one of the heaviest materials and not very portable.
- Marble: Marble is very sturdy, making it able to withstand some abuse, but it is also typically the most smoothly polished of the stone types and sometimes too smooth for grinding. This material is, like granite, very heavy, which can help keep it in place, but can also make moving larger models difficult.
- Stainless Steel: Steel mortars and pestles are the least likely to sustain damage of any of the materials, making them ideal for anyone who will be doing a lot of pounding to break open spices. However, their slick finish makes them less suited for grinding and make it difficult to achieve a fine or powder-like consistency.
A mortar and pestle are most often sold as a set together and are made of matching materials, but some chefs swear by mixing materials to get the best of both worlds – for example, using a wooden pestle in a granite mortar.
While the design of mortars and pestles has remained largely unchanged over time, there are a few features you may wish to consider when comparing models for purchase. Some models, most often ceramic, offer a pestle with a wooden handle and ceramic tip. The ceramic tip allows for effective grinding, while the wooden handle makes the pestle easier to grip. Check to see if the model you are considering is dishwasher-safe, as this can make cleanup fast and convenient. Ceramic models are also sometimes microwave-safe, which can be of benefit for some recipes.
The base is one of the most important considerations when looking at the design of a mortar. Many mortars have a pedestal base, raising the bowl to a more comfortable working height and, in many cases, offering a wide support to limit the chances of the mortar turning over while in use. The feet on some models are non-skidding, while others have felt on the bottom to keep the stone from marking countertops.
Usage & Care
Many chefs swear by the mortar and pestle's ability to bring out bolder flavors from herbs and spices. The tool is often used to crush or grind cinnamon, cloves, peppercorns, nuts, seeds, or garlic. Grinding or pounding the spices by hand allows you to carefully control how fine or coarse the final product is, which can greatly influence the texture and flavor of the food. Some chefs recommend a mortar and pestle for garlic in particular, as the heat generated by the blades in a blender or food processor can turn fresh garlic bitter.4 It is also commonly used for making pesto, salsa, guacamole, or curry paste.
When using your mortar and pestle set, be sure to not fill the bowl more than 1⁄3 full. Overfilling the bowl can result in spillage and can make it difficult to crush the ingredients. If you need to crush or grind a large amount of ingredients, you can either do it in batches or add more large pieces as you grind.
Maintaining and cleaning your mortar and pestle properly can ensure it has a long life and does not retain any unpleasant odors or stains. The first step in maintaining any stone set is to season it. While some people claim grinding the pestle into the mortar for a while is enough, the most common method of seasoning uses white rice.
- Place a small handful of uncooked white rice in the bowl, then dampen it slightly with water.
- Grind rice down until it is a fine powder. This powder will be a mix of rice and grit loosened from the stone.
- Discard the powder and rinse out the bowl.
- Repeat steps 1-3 until no more grit is coming off into the rice.
Cleaning methods will be determined by the material your mortar and pestle are made of. Stainless steel can be washed in a dishwasher. Ceramic is often labeled as dishwasher-safe, but many people recommend against it, claiming the ceramic can absorb a foul flavor from the soap and pass it onto your food. This same concern is expressed for stone and wood sets, so it is recommended that you avoid soap when cleaning those. If your mortar becomes stained or has absorbed an odor, you can follow the same process as seasoning: grind small batches of uncooked white rice until the rice remains white and odorless.
1. Man's Oldest Kitchen Tool. Manila Bulletin. Accessed February 2016.
2. The Origins and Development of Ground Stone Assemblages in Late Pleistocene Southwest Asia. Persee. Accessed February 2016.
3. Ten Thousand Years of the Mortar and Pestle. The Atlantic. Accessed September 2018.
4. Real Chefs Grind it With a Mortar and Pestle. NPR. Accessed February 2016.