Why a Mortar and Pestle Will Make Your Cooking So Much Better
How to use and care for this underrated, ancient kitchen tool.
I truly despise adding appliances to my kitchen. Don’t get me wrong, I love welcoming a new tool into my home when I see how much it’ll help me out in the long run (like my rice cooker, cocktail mixing glass, and electric milk frother). Still, when it comes to bringing something new into my small kitchen and actually letting it stay there, only the best gadgets pass muster. Enter: a mortar and pestle. Yes, whether you’re a cook-three-meals-a day-at-home kind of person or just an appreciator of a good sauce, you do really need one.
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A mortar and pestle will crush nuts and grind spices with ease. You can use it to emulsify garlic and oil into a creamy aioli and smash chiles and ginger into curry paste. A fresh pesto or romesco for pasta or vegetables? Easy as pie in this bad boy.
Perhaps you think that if you already own a spice grinder, blender, or food processor, hand-operated gadgets like a mortar and pestle are unnecessary relics? Not true. While you can use a these electronics to crush nuts and blend sauces, a mortar and pestle puts the power completely in your hands. You can watch the process of an ingredient breaking down from start to finish—plus, it’s a heck of a lot easier to wash.
When I was growing up, we had a two-inch ceramic mortar and pestle. It was adorable and fit neatly in a cabinet, but didn’t really work for much more grinding a spoonful or two of nuts or spices. To really harness the power of a mortar and pestle, look for one that’s six or eight inches wide and has a naturally finished (not glossy) or ridged surface to help act as an abrasive. I own a nine-inch Japanese-style ceramic mortar and wooden pestle (known as a suribachi and surikogi, respectively). It has scored ridges on the unglazed interior, which are particularly helpful for grinding ginger, spices, and seeds, and admittedly also make it very annoying to clean. Still, it’s beautiful and I love it.
You’ve probably seen a Mexican stone molcajete (technically the mortar; the pestle is called tejolote) at restaurants for tableside guacamole, but I assure you they can smush way more than avocados. Since they’re made of lava stone, molcajetes need to be treated first, and you’ll have to do that yourself by grinding it with garlic and salt or rice until no longer gives off blackish sand or dirt. It’s sort of like seasoning a cast iron skillet. A great starter mortar and pestle is this Mediterranean marble and wood version, which is smooth and easy to clean, as well as a killer pesto-maker. This black granite one is another multi-functional version.
To keep them clean, odorless, and long-lasting, mortars and pestles should be hand washed and dried before you put them away.