Recently, Jim Dillon asked me to recommend a good mortar and pestle. It is a fine request as they are incredibly useful, yet misunderstood tools. I’ve been mentally panning most of the mortars and pestles I see for year because of their ineffective —yet often beautiful — design. So here are some mortar and pestle basics, my recommendations for buying or improvising your own, AND recipes you can make this weekend.
A mortar is an unbreakable bowl heavy enough to NOT move or wobble when you pound foods to a puree or coarse paste using a pestle. Mortars and pestles are great for grinding spices, pounding garlic to a paste with salt (to make it sweeter), and making flavored oils, sauces and rough purees. Pestos made in a mortar are a whole other order-of-magnitude than those made in a food processor.
A good mortar will be slightly rough on the inside to keep the food from sliding around and help to break it down. The interior should also be big enough to hold the ingredients without spilling over the side, as in, say an aoili sauce, where you add a good amount of olive oil to pureed garlic and egg yolk until an emulsion forms.
Many years ago, I lugged a 17-pound antique marble mortar home from France (photo, top). I love it because it works wonderfully and evokes memories of cooking in Provence many years ago. There I made sauces in a massive stone mortar in the courtyard of my little house overlooking the Mediterranean. It took three men to lift, so I’d carry my ingredients to it and work outside. Its pestle missing, I used a stone I found on the beach instead. These days, I use my Greek great-grandmother’s wooden pestle (above) that she used to make her fabulous Skordalia (garlic sauce).
You don’t actually have to HAVE a proper mortar and pestle to get the effect of one.
These are the many pounding devices I’ve used over the years, including rocks, to mash and puree ingredients right on the countertop or in an unbreakable stainless-steel restaurant bowl: my improvised version of a mortar and pestle.
Still, a REAL mortar is a great tool, and can be gotten second-hand or through unexpected sources. In a French restaurant I worked in NYC many years ago, we used a Coors USA 6 laboratory mortar that weighed five pounds to make the aioli and rouille; it held about 3-cups. Although that size of Coors is hard to find new, one occasionally shows up on Ebay. When the porcelain pestle rolled off the counter and broke, I inherited the mortar; I use it with my grandmother’s pestle.
If you’re in the market for a mortar —whether used or new — look for one with interior bowl dimensions of 3.5 to 4 inches deep and at least 5 to 6.5-inches in diameter, that will hold at least 3 cups. If in doubt, measure or inquire about the interior volume.
My favorite NEW mortar is Milton Brook Unglazed Mortar and Pestles with beech handle pestles. They come in a variety of sizes from 4 inches-in-diameter to hefty, beautiful 12-inch-diameter that holds 8-pints/16 cups). I’d recommend the 6.5-inch ($64.99) that holds 2-cups OR the 8-inch ($69) that holds 4+ cups.
I’ve also come to really like Williams Sonoma’s knockoff of the mortar I lugged back from France. It’s smaller but is able to hold aioli for 8.
Other options include the inexpensive Mexican Molcajete made of granite. NOTE: Jim Dillion tested Carolina Biological’s 600 mL Porcelain Mortar and Pestle (about $19 with shipping) and gave it glowing reviews. See his Comment below.
Beware beautiful mortars that will do nothing but…look beautiful.
Although designed just to crush spices, Tom Dixon’s marble and brass sculpture looks utterly worthless to me even for that purpose. I can’t image getting enough purchase on the ball to pound anything without slamming my fingers and I’d never want to polish it “using food safe polish”.
Equally beautiful is Magnus Lungstrum’s mortar and pestle, available in granite or white marble and several sizes. A little bit of math makes me wonder if the inside dimension of the largest bowl ($125) would make it difficult to hold enough sauce for at least four people. According to Quitokeeto, it measures 3.3 inches x 7.1 inches on the outside and holds about 2 cups. Subtract a good inch from the bottom and you have an interior depth of only 2 inches or so, making it easy to slop food over the top. A Milton Brook Unglazed Mortar and Pestle would be a better bet. Still, the Lungstrum mortar is so beautiful, I’d be game to see it in person to test it out.
The smaller versions are completely impractical…