Last Updated: August 4, 2021
The mortar and pestle are considered by many to be the oldest mechanical tools employed in cooking and food preparation. Although its origins are difficult to identify, much of what we know today about the mortar and pestle started in the Middle East. It was widely used throughout this region as early as 3000 BC. The first picture of a mortar and pestle comes from an Egyptian mural painting in 3000 to 4000 BC. The traditional use of a mortar and pestle was to pound, grind, or mash various ingredients into unique sauces, pastes, or mixes. This was particularly useful for ingredients that were described as being “rough.” Often called “mortar and pestle systems,» these devices were commonly used to produce spice mixtures like curry powder, Chinese five spice blend, garam masala, and Chinese tea leaves for name a few.
The mortar and pestle were traditionally made from ceramic materials such as stone or pottery, more recently also from glass, wood or stainless steel. The upper end of the mortar is usually rounded. This helps to keep solid ingredients above the surface without using a whisk (if using a bowl shaped rather than conical vessel). The «mortar» can be used for grinding or pounding, depending on the material and size of what is placed within it. The mortar and pestle, or the rough stone grinding bowl and the stick that you use to grind, is thought to be one of mankind’s oldest tools. The mortar and pestle is still an important piece for food preparation that has not been fully replaced by modern technology.
Despite the advent of electric grinders and coffee grinders, a primitive device remains popular and is found in every second kitchen, if not more often. It is the mortar and pestle — it has been used since ancient times and hasn’t lost its popularity to this day. The main reason for this is that it is quite convenient for most tasks, can be easily taken anywhere and does not require extension cords or wires.
These are true workhorses that have survived centuries and been used in different cultures. In this article, we will discuss everything you need to know about using a mortar and pestle. We will look at their benefits in comparison with other cooking utensils, and find out what you should pay attention to when buying an instrument of this type.
There is a multitude of choices when it comes to the selection of mortar and pestle in the modern market. Given that its primary purpose is to grind herbs and spices, it may seem that this piece of kitchen equipment will be a simple acquisition. However, when you delve deeper into its different variations, you will find yourself faced with a plethora of questions: how do you differentiate between them? Which one would suit your specific needs? What are the differences between various materials used for the production of mortars and pestles and what are its pros and cons?
Different shapes and sizes of mortars are designed for certain culinary purposes. In order not to make a wrong choice, it is necessary to decide on the purposes. Grinding technology provides two types of impact on the prepared foods :
This method of grinding is convenient for processing spices, spicy herbs and other crumbly products. It is for them it is advisable to buy a flat container or with a hemispherical inner surface. The base is thickened cylindrical or hemispherical. Such mortars are of small size and width. Active impact force may be required when splitting nuts, pine nuts and other nut kernels, as well as large seeds and coffee beans. Therefore, it is advisable to choose a tall and narrow mortar shaped like a glass. Unlike wide pestles, they can withstand intense blows with the pestle and prevent the crushed raw material from flying in all directions in the kitchen.
Chopping bowls can be small — about 8-12 cm or large — about 17 cm. In the small ones it is mostly convenient to grind various spices. For processing large components: groats, nuts, grains, cereals — you will need larger mortars. Some products have a spout for draining water — an extremely convenient addition if you are going to cook various sauces. Such spouts were originally inherent in models for chemical experiments, but now they are actively introduced in the modern kitchen. It is great if the set includes a lid with a hole in the center, which allows you to close the vessel.
When buying a pestle, you should also pay attention to the pestle itself. The pestle can be made of the same material as the mortar, or of a completely different material. It would be nice if its surface had a slight roughness, it will facilitate the process and make cooking faster and more pleasant. The pestle must necessarily be heavy and dense in weight, but at the same time it should be comfortable in your hand. A small contact area is not very practical. You will need to constantly exert physical force to grind it well.
Hundreds of years ago, mankind discovered the advantages of grinding and gradually introduced the technology to food processing. The daily life of many people included kitchen mortars made of different materials: stones, ceramics, glass and metal. Let’s take a closer look at the pros and cons of each material.
In the ranking of popularity among kitchen utensils the first place after stone is held by wood — a natural material. Wooden mortar is not suitable for grinding, but with its help it is very convenient to grind products. For example, in Japan they still use large wooden pots for making high-quality rice flour.
Wooden mortars are predominantly bowl-shaped. The base of the mortar is strong wood such as boxwood and dogwood or medium hard wood such as oak and Canadian maple. In cases where the wooden mortar with pestle is made by longitudinal sawing technology and has a thick bottom, the strength of such mortar becomes largely equal to similar metal products. For dry ingredients mortars made of hard wood are in high demand. With the help of such mortars it is convenient to grind and grate nuts, seeds and herbs. In olden times such mortars were used to make not only linseed oil, but also hemp oil by long grinding of grains.
Disadvantages of wooden surfaces :
To protect against moisture, an oily film forms on the wood surface over a period of time. There are also cheaper models on the market with a glued film, which still cracks over time.
Stone mortars are made of polished granite, marble and basalt. There are also souvenir models made of semi-precious stones such as jasper, chalcedony, onyx, carnelian and agate. These stones are very hard and dense. When polished in stone stupes, they become like loose powders or pastes. And only basalt is poorly polished; as a result, the food components become coarser grained.
The disadvantages of stone products include the risk of splitting when struck hard. For this reason you should not grind crumbly mixtures. The stone with the greatest resistance to impact is jade, and mortars and pestles made of this material are strong and last for many years. The next disadvantage is the great weight. It is difficult to hold it in one’s hands for a long time, while working one will have to put it on the surface of the table. Therefore, it is necessary to get used to it. Choose only high-quality and reliable shelves to place the product.
Advantages include such characteristics :
Marble is an exception: not only is it not durable and often cracks, but it also absorbs water, dyes and fats. This is especially felt when rubbing lemon or adding vinegar. If you already have a marble mortar and pestle at home, you can easily grind dry cereals and spices in it, prepare non-aggressive pastes, such as fried garlic or onions in oil.
Granite bowls may be considered the most expensive, but they are the strongest and most durable. However, the stone is porous and absorbs water. It is recommended to grind dry ingredients in granite.
Ceramic mortars are quite brittle and short-lived and are not designed for grinding hard foods such as nuts and grains. Over a period of time, oily and multicolored streaks form on its porous inner surface. For grinding herbs, various spices or eggshells are the best. It should be remembered that ceramic products easily and sufficiently absorb foreign odors and retain them for a long time.
Pay attention to the absence of glaze inside the ceramic mortar and on the working part of the pestle. Because the glaze will crack as soon as the first processing of spices or nuts, and its particles will end up in the food.
A more reliable ceramic material would be porcelain. It does not absorb moisture, does not interact with acids, and polishes well. In porcelain mortars you can safely grind not only spices and spices, but also coffee beans, because porcelain does not absorb oils and odors.
Cast iron pestles require special care — if they are not washed and wiped dry after use, a layer of rust will certainly form on the surface. At the same time, it is not easy to remove the rusty traces. It is necessary to harden with oil, as it is done with a new cast-iron frying pan. About the fragility of cast iron also should not be forgotten — despite its massiveness, this alloy splits quite easily upon impact when falling from a height. In this case, often not only the product, but also the flooring suffers.
As an advantage, it should be noted the weightiness of the mortar and pestle — when working with them it takes much less effort compared to a wooden or ceramic mortar. As for the cost, cast iron is cheaper than natural stone, which means it is gladly chosen by lovers of solidity.
Glass mortars are mostly found in laboratories, but they can also be used in kitchens. The advantages of glass mortars are their inertness and complete absence of pores. In a glass mortar, if desired, you can always grind any fragrant and oily ingredients — no trace remains after cleaning.
The disadvantages include fragility and brittleness and smoothness of the surface. Modern glass bowls can only be used for gentle chopping, impact is not allowed. Suitable for chopping herbs, garlic, delicate nuts. But on the smooth surface, not everything can be chopped, keep this fact in mind. In such a vessel it is comfortable to make sauces, for example, you can immediately pour chopped herbs and spices into oil or other liquid. Stir and even serve.
High-quality stainless steel mortars and pestles are a novelty in recent decades. Stainless steel does not absorb liquids and oils, is perfectly tolerant of high temperatures, and is durable and wear-resistant. But it is lightweight, so you’ll need a lot more effort to grind hard spices and nuts.
The inside of the bowl is not polished, but rather slightly rough. The outer surface is either matt or glossy. Brass is also used for manufacturing. Such products are often stylized antique. However, this kind of metal is much more capricious in handling. Gourmets grind coffee beans in such bowls before making a drink.
Based on all of the above, we conclude what types of mortars and for what purposes can be used or not to use :
Techniques for doing various jobs using a mortar :
When the spices are dry and do not emit resinous substances, wiping the mortar and pestle with a clean, dry cloth will be sufficient after work. If the spices give off a pungent smell, you can get rid of this aroma with the help of rice. To do this, dry grits are rubbed in a bowl until the unpleasant smell disappears completely.
Spicy herbs on the surface of the mortar and the working part of the pestle can leave traces. To remove them in extreme cases, use sandpaper. Pestle with pestle for grinding medicines in the kitchen, it is desirable not to use at all. For such tasks it is advisable to buy a glass set — it is the most inert and safe.
When you hear the word mortar, probably many of you start thinking about alchemists and medieval laboratories. And this is not surprising — in these places mortar and pestle were very popular. Also, this tool is referred to as a medieval treasure. But it is not used only there. Mortar and pestle, this is a tool that most of us simply cannot live without in the kitchen. When you buy them for the first time, you might think that is not a big deal to choose one — mortar and pestle, these tools look similar to each other, right? Well, actually there are differences in materials and sizes. Whether you’re a complete novice in the kitchen or an experienced cook, it is never too late to start seeking out some handy cooking utensils to add to your toolkit. Ever since the kitchen mortar and pestle has been invented it has become an integral part of life for every kitchen. Thanks to it, we have the opportunity to make delicious food products with simple movements of both hands.
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