In today’s kitchen, the mortar & pestle is a specialty item for the serious cook, but in ancient times it was a necessity. There are references in the Bible to indicate that the Israelites used these tools to grind grain. Some of us may even recall the mortar & pestle symbol on drugstore signs. Certain specialty pharmacies still use them to compound medicines and no doubt scientists still use them to grind chemicals into powder. In Ayurvedic medicine, a good quality mortar & pestle helps to grind herbs for infusions and teas.
We know of vineyard owners who used a mortar & pestle for crushing grapes straight from the vine to test for sweetness. Some people believe that using a mortar and pestle to grind coffee beans is a more effective method than using an electric coffee grinder, and it can also help relieve pent-up frustration!
Types of Mortar & Pestle Sets
Mortar and pestle sets come in various materials, shapes, and sizes including brass, stainless steel, wood, cast iron, ceramic, stoneware, and marble.
The molcajete (mortar) and tejolete (pestle) is a traditional Mexican mortar and pestle carved from natural volcanic stone. A perfect addition to any household that loves making and eating authentic guacamole and salsa.
Choosing the right size for a mortar and pestle largely depends on your intended use. A larger size would be ideal for making garlic and basil pastes and would suit a household that consumes a lot of pesto. On the other hand, if you enjoy cooking with saffron, a smaller set would be ideal for breaking the tiny threads and releasing the color and flavor.
Must-have kitchen tools
Mortar and pestle sets can be useful kitchen tools for many reasons. Grinding spices as needed is less time-consuming than most people would think and can significantly enhance the taste of even the simplest dishes. If you are planning to buy a mortar and pestle set for your kitchen or looking for a gift for a budding chef, there are plenty of reasons to consider this kitchen tool. Apart from its functionality, it can also add to your kitchen décor and complement your culinary skills.
The mortar and pestle: The mortar is a durable bowl and the pestle is a rounded grinding club often made of the same material as the mortar. Items that are good to grind or crush in the mortar and pestle include peppercorns, spice seeds, fresh herb and spice leaves, nuts, hard candies, coarse sea salt, and much more.
Grinding, pounding, and muddling…what’s it all about?
Here are a few important terms to know if you're new to using a mortar and pestle.
Grinding: Hold the mortar or bowl firmly in one hand. Use the rounded end of the pestle to press down into the ingredients, and then press and roll the pestle against the bottom and/or sides of the mortar. Keep grinding until you reach the desired consistency.
Pounding or bashing: This method breaks up larger spices and seeds. Start with grinding and then pound with short, sharp movements. Have a tea towel or clean cloth nearby to cover the opposite side of the mortar to catch anything that tries to hop out.
Muddling: It’s all in the wrist action with this technique! Used to release the oils and aroma from herbs, such as mint, this method involves pressing down gently and twisting with your wrist before releasing. Do this about 2-3 times, remembering to do it gently, lightly bruising the leaves. Crushed or torn herbs may add a bitter or unpleasant taste to the recipe. The key to muddling is to release the essence of the herbs gently into the food or drink.
Note: Bartenders muddle ingredients, such as mint, to release flavor in cocktails like the Mojito or Mint Julep. Muddled fruit, like blueberries or strawberries, are also common in "smash" drinks.
5 things to do with a Mortar & Pestle
Grinding and storing spices is an age-old tradition that people have been practicing for centuries. When you smash and grind spices like cloves, cardamom, star anise, coriander, and fennel, you extract all the aromatics and oils from the spices, which enhances their flavor.
What about creating spice blends, such as garam masala? Pre-ground spices can also be ground again to awaken their flavor and allow the spices to infuse together.
Garlic or allium sativum, is a vegetable that belongs to the same family as onions. It is a popular ingredient in salad dressings and chili, and who could forget mom’s famous 40-clove garlic chicken? Used for medicinal purposes for a long time, people believe that eating raw cloves of garlic every day can help them avoid sickness during cold and flu season. It is a widely used flavor enhancer in many households.
Crushing garlic adds flavor to dishes, but it does leave a pungent smell on your fingers and cutting board. A mortar and pestle set makes it comfortable to peel and mash garlic without the lingering odor.
Hummus is not just a delicious spread to eat with naan bread or veggies, it is a great substitute for recipes that call for heavy cream. Additionally, it has a much more flavorful taste. In the past, people used a mortar and pestle to make hummus, but nowadays, most people use a food processor. If you prefer a chunky, rustic-style hummus, it's worth making it the traditional way.
Create Flavored Salts
If you have ever bought gourmet flavored salts, then you know how expensive they can be. However, you can easily make them at home without spending too much money. All you need to do is grind a mix of dried herbs and spices with your coarse salt using a mortar and pestle. Lemon pepper salt, rosemary salt, and chive blossom salt are some of the wonderful finishing salts that you can effortlessly make at home. Moreover, these homemade salts can be an ideal DIY gift for your friends and family, especially during the holiday season.
Make Fresh Chimichurri
A favorite complement to barbecued meat, chimichurri is an Argentinian condiment that has surpassed Argentina’s borders and is popular throughout the world.
Traditionally served over steak or ribs, this flavorful sauce is delicious over roast beef and chicken. It’s perfect to add flavor to vegetable dishes, as well, including cauliflower or Portobello steaks as well as legumes, potatoes, and rice.
When you use a mortar and pestle to grind parsley and garlic together, you're not simply mixing ingredients, but blending oils and flavors into a highly aromatic and flavorful sauce. If you want to give Chimichurri a try, we have the perfect recipe for you!
Photos by: Carrie of Pantry To Table