What is a mortar and pestle?
A mortar and pestle is a two-piece cooking tool designed to mash whatever’s put into it. “A mortar is a bowl usually made of stone, marble, or another hard material while a pestle is a blunt tool made of matching material,” explains chef Narita Santos, who is at the helm of The Exchange at Freehand Los Angeles.
Simple in nature, it’s no wonder that the mortar and pestle has been around since the stone age. The reason they remain so popular in modern times is because, according to dietitian Jennifer Maeng of Chelsea Nutrition in New York City, mortar and pestles are able to crush ingredients very finely (like, powder fine). “They have been used in the kitchen for centuries,” she exclaims. The first documented use of the mortar and pestle came from an ancient Egyptian papyrus dating back to 1550BC, and estimations say that the tools were used for 6,000 years prior to this inscription. Considering that the design of the grinding duo has remained pretty much the same throughout history, “it’s as simple as you can get when it comes to kitchen tools.”
The cultural context of the mortar and pestle
According to Dan Churchill, CEO and co-founder at impact-driven Australian restaurant Charley St, the mortar and pestle is actually one of the first known kitchen tools ever. “Not only were they used in the kitchen but at pharmacies and laboratories as well,” he explains, reiterating that they originated back in the Stone Age.
While mortar and pestles are believed to have originated in Egypt way back when, Churchill points out that they carry a rich history across many cultures. “Each culture will have their own shapes, sizes, and materials of mortars and pestles based on their use and what they have access to,” he explains.
From a use standpoint, Maeng says that mortars and pestles were first believed to be used for grinding spices. “Larger versions of mortar and pestles eventually lead to the invention of other items like butter churns,” she adds.
But can a modern tool replace it?
Given its age, you might be wondering if a mortar and pestle is really necessary, or if another more modern kitchen tool can do the same thing.
As Santos sees it, mortars and pestles are singular. “It is a must-have for every kitchen as a mortar and pestle helps extract flavors out of ingredients in a way that blenders or food processors can not,” she explains. “It also allows for creating small batches or preparing items in small amounts.”
Churchill agrees, calling out the control a mortar and pestle gives a chef. “You can control the consistency of your mix,” he says. “Rather than it being all or nothing when using a food processor, you can be specific to your liking with a mortar and pestle. Plus, they make the best curry pastes.”
How to use a mortar and pestle
So far, you know that mortars and pestles work wonders for spices and curry, but Santos says they can be used for so many other kitchen needs.
“You can use mortars and pestles to pound garlic or ginger into a paste, to crush and grind seeds, to pound chiles and tomatillos into salsa; you can also make a simple guacamole or pesto,” she says.
However you plan to use a mortar and pestle, Churchill says that the most important thing to remember is to not overcrowd it. “Use small pounds to effectively bruise your mix,” he says, noting to rotate your pestle around your mortar to grind down what’s in the bowl.
The best mortars and pestles
Like most things, the best mortars and pestles depend on who you ask. Where Santos prefers the ones she finds at her local Thai and Latin markets, Churchill always reaches for those made of granite, regardless of their cultural origin. And, according to Maeng, there’s likely a reason for that.
“The most popular mortar and pestles include marble and unpolished granite, ceramic, metal, and molcajetes (Mexican stone),” she says. “When it comes to choosing which mortar and pestle to use, it depends on what I’m making. If I’m making guacamole I like to use a molcajete; if I’m making pesto I like to use a granite mortar and pestle to be able to finely grind the basil.”
Ready to add one to your own kitchen? Choose among the top-rated mortars and pestles, below.
Best mortar and pestle duos
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