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…
Check out some mortar-and-pestle made recipes and improvisations here.
13 replies on “Mortar and Pestles to Buy or DIY (and Ones Not To)”
i always say,
i find my mortar and pestle to be the most useful tool in my kitchen for making truly fragrant and delicious food. i LOVE mine!
i have a granite mortar, with a granite pestle in a longer shape than the one in your picture. I have to say, having a heavy pestle is wonderful and makes so much difference in the work involved–it truly becomes a pleasure to make sauces and garlic and spice mixtures this way! the pestle does all the work for me, saves my wrist and hand tendons, and i just get to smell the fragrance-
i think guacamole made in the mortar and pestle tastes amazing, it IS different from that made on a chopping block or regular bowl. it must be the way the ingredients crush and mix together, and maybe some ”stone” taste from the mortar occurs too, i don’t know. but i find everything made in there tastes great!
after becoming familiar with my mortar and pestle, it TOTALLY makes sense to me why so many native and modern cultures have used and still use a mortar and pestle for sauces, etc, and forgo the ”cuisinart”.
I’m a big fan of the Japanese suribachi, which is a ceramic mortar with ridges. They come in all sizes from tiny ones good for spices to ones big enough to make a large quantity of miso soup. They’re especially good for grinding sesame seeds for doma dofu, which some chefs consider to be a form of meditation in itself: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OK5CmKMTRRI
I agree. And there is something about using such an age-old tool that gives great pleasure in the process (aside from the elemental and inimitable textures and flavors that come from it).
Do I need to worry about old chemicals still inhabiting an old stained Coors mortar bowl?
My mother passed down an old iron mortal bowl from her father’s father, a back-woods pill roller (herbal man) and horse-riding circuit preacher from Georgia. I was used to prop open the garage door on windy days as it had a big chip out of the lip. I still have it and wish it could talk.
Hmmm. Coors mortars were MEANT to be used for laboratory work. So I would think they would be inert, that is, not hold the chemicals after a good cleaning. If you’re concerned though, you can contact the company directly. Here’s a link that you can take to find their “technical service” at the bottom of the page.
I ordered this one from Carolina Biological Supply, via Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B005MIQ6O4/ref=oh_aui_detailpage_o01_s00?ie=UTF8&psc=1
on the theory that it must be similar to the Coors version. The price was ridiculous – – $10? ? ? The capacity is listed at 600 ml which works out a bit over 2 cups, but just now I put in 3 cups of water and it didn’t spill but was exactly full. It’s about 6″ wide (inside) and about 2-1/2″ deep (again, inside).
It looks fantastic but I haven’t tried it yet. Bought guacamole makings this evening, will make guac tomorrow night and report back.
It LOOKS fine. How about the inside depth…does it keep things from spilling over the sides? Let us know how the guacamole went. You may have found a serious bargain.
Guacamole was fantastic! Including some toasted cumin seeds really transformed it. The Carolina Biological Supply mortar and pestle is very good, and we’ll use it for garlic and spices, dressings and sauces, from now on. My guacamole on Friday was made from a single extra-large avocado, which was about the right volume for this m&p. Two of the regular-size avocados would also fit about right.
This mortar and pestle has more than enough weight to stay put on the countertop without extraordinary measures. We are really sensitive to this, because my partner uses it one-handed. The texture inside is wonderfully rough, so the small seeds we started out with never once skittered out from under the pestle. My only complaint is that I’d like the pestle to be a larger diameter – – after 10 minutes of work, my hand cramped a bit. But I can certainly improvise an improvement to that!
My verdict: at $10, the Carolina Biological Supply 600 ml mortar and pestle is a steal. If I were making mole, I’d want something bigger, though.
I picked up a pretty good one at IKEA last year for $15 (it’s called “Adelsten”). It’s stone (web site says “hard marble”), a good size and weight, fairly good looking, and is overall decent. I wouldn’t mind if the pestle were a smidgen large but it’s fine for seeds, herbs, cacao nibs, even coffee beans.
Sounds good. You can always use a rock for a pestle…
Sally, I found a REALLY similar-looking-to-your-antique mortar & pestle online from Williams Sonoma (but omg it’s expensive) – do you recommend this style/shape? I love the idea of the “handles”!
Hi Kimithy, The Williams Sonoma mortar looks good. My only concern is that it holds enough for your purposes. I note a few reviews wish that it were bigger. I called William Sonoma but the person I got was clueless; probably best to do it in the daytime.
My general guide is a mortar with an “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.” The one you found looks like it would barely fall within that, if you’re lucky.
I would call to inquire about the interior dimensions and volume as well as how they are measuring the 7-inches in diameter (does that include the handles or just the span?) And then think what you’d use it for. It’s certainly big enough to crush things and make a couple of cups of a sauce. If it would work for your purposes, and give you pleasure, it has some good things going for it, like the weight and the rough interior (and free shipping). I think if you sign up for their newsletter, you get 10-15% off… (:
Let me know what you find out and decide.