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    How to Use a Mortar and Pestle

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    How to Use a Mortar and Pestle

    You’ve seen them in photos and films that feature apothecary shops. You’ve noticed them in museum displays. But the mortar and pestle is an ancient toolset that belongs in your modern kitchen.

    Used to prepare ingredients by crushing them into a fine powder or paste, a mortar and pestle is the perfect no-tech, natural way to mix spices, grind medications, and make sauces. The set includes the mortar – a bowl made of wood, stone, metal, or ceramic – and a club-like object called the pestle that is made of the same material as the mortar.

    The word “mortar” comes from the Latin “mortarium,” which means “receptacle for mixing and pounding.” The term “pestle” comes from “pestillum,” which means “pounder.” In addition to giving you a satisfying hands-on way to mash your ingredients, the mortar and pestle work together to release the foods’ full flavors and aromas. That release is unlike anything you can get with the blades of a food processor or blender.

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    How to Choose the Right Mortar and Pestle

    As you grind or crush an ingredient, the idea is to keep everything in the mortar. Therefore, the tools come in a range of shapes, textures, and sizes that are suited to the tasks you want to perform.

    Many food experts, such as those at Bon Appetit, recommend that a mortar with a diameter of at least six inches and a depth of about three inches is a good size for beginners. Bon Appetit’s senior food editor Andy Baraghani also suggests stone as the ideal starter material, explaining that the smooth texture is easy to wash and dry.

    After you get the hang of using a mortar and pestle, you may want to add other sizes and textures to your collection.

    Steps for Preparing the Mortar and Pestle

    Like some of your quality cookware and cutting boards, a mortar and pestle need seasoning. Here is the seasoning method for a stone set.

    • Rinse the new set well in clean water without using soap. Allow it to air dry.
    • Place a handful of white rice in the mortar and grind it with the pestle.
    • Discard the rice powder and repeat the process three times.
    • Add a few garlic cloves to the last powder and grind it all together.
    • Add a teaspoon of salt, pepper, and cumin. Grind them together with the other ingredients.
    • Discard the fragrant powder.
    • Rinse the mortar and pestle with water without using soap. Allow it to air dry.

    Using the Mortar and Pestle

    Now, you are ready to create pastes and powders with your new tool. Here are the steps to follow:

    • Place ingredients into the mortar. Fill the mortar no more than one-third full to ensure a consistent grind.
    • Holding the mortar with one hand, hold the pestle in the opposite hand. Twist the pestle against the ingredients, grinding and mashing them into the bottom and sides of the mortar.
    • Keep it up until all of the ingredients have the same consistency.

    If you are blending ingredients of different textures, you need to follow a specific order for the best results. According to D. & P. Gramp, authors of the book Alchemy of the Mortar & Pestle, here is the correct sequence.

    First, crush your dry ingredients, such as dried herbs, spices, and flour. Next, add moist ingredients, such as fresh herbs, garlic, onion, or brown sugar.

    Oily ingredients like nuts, cheese, anchovies, butter, or oils should go in next. Lastly, you can mash in wet ingredients including stock, lemon juice, honey, soy sauce, or vinegar.

    While this grinding technique works in most recipes, some larger or hard-textured ingredients, like seeds, may require more of a pounding method than a grinding approach. A firm yet gentle pounding also works well for crushing garlic with a mortar and pestle.

    Recipes for the Mortar and Pestle

    In addition to using the mortar and pestle for making spice and herb blends (here are a few recipes from The New York Times), you’ll find the tool handy in many other ways. Here are some ideas:

    • Guacamole. A large mortar and pestle are perfect for mashing avocados for homemade guacamole. You can also use it for salsa while you’re in the mood for Mexican food. This article shares some tips.
    • Hummus. If you’d like to make hummus the traditional way, use a mortar and pestle. This video shows how easy the process is.
    • Pesto. Another classic recipe that is a natural for mortar and pestle is pesto. This article shows you the steps. 
    • Chimichurri. A delicious Argentinian sauce for use over meats and fish, chimichurri lends itself to the grinding and mashing you can do with a mortar and pestle. Here is a recipe to try.
    • Aioli. You can create this garlicky mayonnaise at home with just a few ingredients and your mortar and pestle. This video shows you how.
    • Curry paste. You can forget the store-bought curry pastes from now on. Curry flavors come tougher beautifully with the use of mortar and pestle. This article shares all you need to know to make a Thai red curry paste the ancient way.
    • Flavored salts. You can also create some interesting flavored salts and salt blends with a mortar and pestle. This article will help get you started.

    You can also use a mortar and pestle to crush tablets and make tea blends, poultices, lotions, and salves. In fact, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without this handy tool.

    You can find a wide range of mortar and pestles online and in brick-and-mortar stores. Here is the selection Amazon has to offer to give you an idea of what’s out there.

    And here are a few more resources on how to use this versatile tool.

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