Mortar and Pestles date back to the 15th century and are an indispensable part of a cook’s battery of equipment – the more you use them, the better they get, and nothing compares to the feeling of grinding your own salt and pepper or making sauces from scratch.
Mortar and pestles are highly prized by chefs in Asia who value it over an electric blender or food processor because it bruises the herbs and releases oils rather than cutting and chopping them. You are also more in touch with your food and have more control over it.
You really only need two mortar and pestles if you are a serious cook and one if you are a dabbler – one for small quantities so you can grind salt and pepper at the last minute and a larger one that you don’t need move around to mash and pulverise bunches of herbs, garlic and ginger and make sauces like salsa and curry paste. Mortars come in lots of materials from stone to wood, and each has its own qualities – see below. It’s a very personal choice.
Granite Mortar and Pestle
Available in asian shops throughout the country, it is ideal for mashing herbs like basil to make pesto, mashing the avocado, tomato and chillies for authentic Mexican salsa, grinding spices, salt crystals and peppercorns and making mayonnaise. It is roomy, durable, beautiful to look at and touch and will give a lifetime’s use.
Molcajete Tejolote (Mexican mortar and pestle)
Made of volcanic rock, this mortar and pestle is the classic one for making and serving salsa and making Mole sauce, a mexican spcie and chocolate sauce. You have to be careful that bits of the rock don’t come off into the salsa! The word molcajete meaning mortar is Aztec for sauce while the word Tejolote means pestle.
Marble mortar and pestle
The advantage of a marble mortar is that it doesn’t absorb smells and it’s easy to clean. It’s not as tactile as some of the others.
Ceramic mortar and pestles
These are lovely mortar and pestles, soft to touch but hard enough to grind effectively, and they often have the advantage of having a pouring spout. There is a good one made under the name of the late Elizabeth David.
The Suribachi is the Japanese mortar and pestle – it is an earthenware bowl glazed on the outside. The pestle is wooden and called a surikogi. It’s used to pound sesame seeds along with ginger and garlic.
Wood mortar and pestle
Wood looks beautiful but it is not as functional as you can’t put in liquids – that means you can’t finish a salsa or guacamole from start to finish without having to wait for the wood to dry out, otherwise you won’t get as good a purchase. If you have one, start grinding dry things first, then move to adding oils and wipe the bowl with a piece of paper towel.
Use and care
To steady a heavy mortar put a teatowel under the mortar so it doesn’t slip and scratch your counter top. Wash in soapy water, rinse and dry.