In this age of induction ranges and sous vide cooking apparatuses, there remains a kitchen tool whose simplicity belies its utility. Meet the mortar and pestle.
This bowl and elongated stick that’s rounded at the end — the mortar and the pestle, respectively — have been around since man had to make his own fire before making a meal. Yet thousands of years later, cooks the world over still use this simple duo.
These culinary tools are made from a variety of materials, from stainless steel to glass and porcelain to the volcanic rock popular in Mexican versions that are called molcajete. Mortars and pestles can be found under $15, and are available at discount stores and of course kitchen stores and online shops. During a recent trip to Cost Plus, I was impressed with the variety of these tools that they offered.
So what, exactly, is a mortar and pestle used for? So glad you asked.
If there is a food you can think of that can be smashed, crushed, mottled or otherwise bruised for the sake of flavor, the mortar and pestle can do it. Two of the most popular items made in them are guacamole and pesto, both of which can be made in smallish quantities, depending on the size of the mortar. Using a mortar and pestle is admittedly low-tech, but works beautifully and can even help you relieve stress. Simply put the ingredients in the bowl, grab the pestle, and crush, grind and macerate away. Just make sure the bowl portion is on a non-slip surface before you take action.
Own one of these long enough, and you’ll surprise yourself with the ways you find to use it. Here’s five to get you started.
- Mottle mint: You may see drink recipes calling for this. Like other fresh herbs, mint’s flavors intensify with bruising, since that releases essential oils. Bruise that mint, then taste what a difference it makes in your favorite beverage.
- Macerate salt: Next time you make popcorn, put some regular or kosher salt into the mortar and grind it into a fine, powder-like texture. Sprinkle this over the popcorn and not only will you be able to use less salt than normal, the tiny particles will find their way into the nooks and crannies of the popcorn for more consistent taste.
- Make garlic paste: Combine a few cloves of minced garlic, a tablespoon or two of olive oil, a dash of kosher salt, and then mash and grind into a paste. Starting with smaller pieces of garlic will lessen the work for this spread that’s dynamite on bread or in salad dressings. The salt enhances flavor and also acts as a culinary agitator.
- Crack peppercorns: When faced with a recipe such as steak au poivre, it can be difficult to obtain the cracked peppercorns needed for the crust. The traditional method is to crush the peppercorns with a pan, but that can still send them flying. A mortar and pestle solves this hurdle, allowing you to crush the peppercorns to proper consistency while keeping them all in one place.
- Make pesto: This spread of pine nuts, olive oil, basil, garlic and Parmesan cheese is usually combined in a food processor, but it can be made into a paste the old-fashioned way with mortar and pestle. As with the garlic paste, make sure the garlic cloves are run through a press or chopped very small for best incorporation.
These are some of my favorite things to do with the mortar and pestle. Have ideas of your own? Feel free to share in the comments area below!