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TIP OF THE DAY: Use A Mortar & Pestle

A marble mortar and pestle. Photo courtesy RSVP. Product information.


When infomercials hawk kitchen gadgets that can make guacamole in under a minute, it’s easy to forget about some of the tools that have been around for hundreds, even thousands of years. While they don’t offer whiz-bang modernity, they have benefits that their shiny, contemporary counterparts lack.

Says chef Johnny Gnall: “One of my favorite such examples is the mortar and pestle. This tool has been around so long that it is mentioned in the Old Testament and in papyrus scrolls from ancient Egypt dating back to 1550 B.C.E.

“You are likely to find a mortar and pestle in most professional kitchens today, as well as in the homes of many chefs. Grinding with a mortar and pestle allows you to combine ingredients in a way that no other tool does. In a food processor or blender, ingredients get moved by the spinning blade at the bottom of the machine. While the speed does help the ingredients to combine, there is still a blade chopping everything to smithereens.


”With a mortar and pestle, on the other hand, ingredients get mashed together, combining in a completely different way. The texture is different, the nuances are different, the ingredients are more clearly articulated.

“Granted, there are limits to what you can combine (dense, hard ingredients such as raw carrots probably won’t work without a lot of sweat). But in general, you are able to get results that no other tool will yield. In fact, in many traditional South American, Indian and Asian recipes, the procedure specifically calls for a mortar and pestle to combine spices and other ingredients.”

We find pesto made in a mortar and pestle to be more lively than that made in a food processor, and that grinding herbs and spices by hand is preferable to spinning them in a machine.

There are different materials from which a mortar and pestle can be made, each with its own strengths and weaknesses.


  • Ceramic and porcelain mortar and pestle sets can grind spices and seeds down to extremely fine powder, but are often brittle and can stain easily. See an example.
  • Wood mortars and pestles can be made from a variety of strong and attractive woods, but it’s important to dry them well after use. Wood absorbs water, which can warp the utensil. Unglazed wood will also stain. See a beautiful glazed wood mortar and pestle.
  • Stone options range from granite to smooth marble to the rustic basalt of the traditional Mexican mortar and pestle called a molcajete. You may have seen one at a Mexican restaurant, where it is used to prepare guacamole at tableside. The porous, volcanic stone has a rough and abrasive surface that is ideal for grinding. Molcajetes are also said to impart a unique and specific texture to salsas and guacamoles that cannot be achieved by a blender or food processor. They can even be heated over fire or coals, allowing you to actually cook in the same tool you used to mix. See a molcajete.

    A Mexican molcajete. Photo courtesy Vasconia. Product information.


  • More: You can find mortars and pestles made from bamboo, brass, steel and even glass.

  • Fried Plantains: Slice, fry, smash in mortar and pestle, refry.
  • Crushing Delicate Fruits & Vegatables: For example, tomatoes, without getting them hacked up as they would in the food processor; plus you have infinitely more control as to the degree of crush when you do it by hand.
  • Garlic: A mortar and pestle is the absolute best tool for making garlic paste: a few cloves of garlic, generous pinch of salt, some olive oil, and smash away!
  • Chocolate: Partially smash chunks of semisweet chocolate for a rustic and lovely dessert garnish.
  • Herbs: A food processor just chops, but a mortar and pestle lets you gently crush to release oils and aromas while allowing you to add ingredients as you go without having to worry about over-mashing/mixing.
  • Salt: It’s great for grinding larger salt crystals, like pink Himalayan salt.

    Pick up a mortar and pestle. What kind of material you go with is a personal choice as is the size: from two-inch diameter minis used to grind spices to eight-inch diameter all-purpose versions.

    Connecting with this ancient tool will show you a new way to taste and flavor familiar ingredients. Create spice mixtures and aromatic pastes by grinding them with your hands, enjoying the mouth-watering aromas that waft up to your nose. Let’s see a Magic Bullet blender do that!


    Related Food Videos: For more food videos, check out The Nibble's Food Video Collection.

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