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Rediscovering the Traditional Pestle and Mortar

  • By: Kitchen Informant
  • Date: May 10, 2024
A wooden Pestle and Mortar filled with crushed herbs.

Rediscovering the Traditional Pestle and Mortar: A Guide to Its Benefits and Uses

History of the Pestle and Mortar

The pestle and mortar are ancient tools that have been used for centuries. Evidence of their use dates back to 35,000 BC, with the earliest known use in Egypt as both medical and culinary tools. The ancient Greeks also used the sets for grinding herbs and spices.

According to The Smithsonian, Bristol-Myers Squibb European Apothecary, the tool was also popular in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries, where they were elaborately decorated with horizontal decorative bands of flowers and geometric designs, inscriptions, heraldic shields, and figures of people, animals, and insects. Several of these early mortars have been analyzed with an x-ray fluorescence spectrometer to determine their composition.

In Southwest Asia, scientists have found ancient mortars and pestles that date back to approximately 35,000 BC. Stone mortars and pestles have also been used by the Kebaran culture (Levant with Sinai) from 22,000 to 18,000 BC to crush grains and other plant material.

Today, they are still used in many cultures around the world. They are an essential tool in traditional medicine and cooking, and they are often made from materials such as stone, wood, or ceramic. In Thailand, for example, the village of Ang Sila is known for its granite-carved mortar and pestle sets, which are used to make traditional Thai dishes.

The pestle and mortar have a rich history and continue to be an important kitchen tool in many cultures around the world.

Materials and Design

When it comes to mortar and pestle, there are a variety of materials and designs to choose from. Each material has its own unique properties, advantages, and disadvantages.

Stone

Stone mortars and pestles are the most traditional and commonly used type. They are typically made from granite, marble, or volcanic rock. Stone is a hard and durable material that can withstand heavy use. It also has a rough texture that makes it ideal for grinding and crushing. Stone mortars and pestles come in different sizes and shapes, ranging from small to large, and can be used for a variety of tasks.

Wood

Wooden mortars and pestles are less common than stone ones but are still used in some cultures. They are typically made from hardwoods such as oak, teak, or maple. Wood is a lightweight and porous material that can absorb flavors and odors, making it unsuitable for certain tasks. However, wooden mortars and pestles are gentle on delicate herbs and spices and can be used for grinding small quantities.

Metal

Metal mortars and pestles are less common than stone or wood ones but are still used in some kitchens. They are typically made from stainless steel or cast iron. Metal is a durable and non-porous material that is easy to clean. However, metal is not ideal for grinding spices and herbs as it can create a metallic taste.

Ceramic

Ceramic mortars and pestles are less traditional but are becoming more popular. They are typically made from porcelain or stoneware. Ceramic is a smooth and non-porous material that is easy to clean. It is also gentle on delicate herbs and spices. However, ceramic is fragile and can chip or crack easily.

Cultural Significance

A gray Pestle and Mortar filled with nuts.


Here are some examples of their cultural significance in different regions:

Asia

In Asia, the pestle and mortar have been used for food preparation for thousands of years. They are commonly used to grind spices, herbs, and grains. In India, for example, the mortar and pestle are used to make chutneys and spice blends. In Thailand, they are used to make curry pastes and other traditional dishes.

Their use is also prevalent in traditional Chinese medicine. Herbal medicines are prepared by grinding herbs and roots in a mortar with a pestle. This method is believed to release the active compounds in the herbs and make them more effective.

Africa

Pestle and mortar are widely used in African cuisine. They are used to grind grains such as millet and sorghum to make flour for bread and porridge. In West Africa, the mortar is made from a hollowed-out log, and the pestle is made from a branch of a tree.

In traditional African medicine, they are used to prepare herbal remedies. The herbs are ground into a fine powder and mixed with other ingredients to make a paste or a tea.

Europe

In Europe, pestle and mortar were used in the Middle Ages for medicinal purposes. They were used to grind herbs and roots to make poultices and ointments. In Italy, the mortar and pestle are used to make pesto, a traditional sauce made from basil, garlic, pine nuts, and olive oil.

Americas

In the Americas, they have been used by indigenous peoples for thousands of years. They were used to grind maize, beans, and other grains to make flour. In Mexico, the mortar and pestle are used to make guacamole, a traditional dip made from avocado, tomato, onion, and lime juice.

In traditional medicine, pestle and mortar are used to prepare herbal remedies. In Central and South America, the mortar and pestle are used to grind coca leaves to make coca paste, which is used as a stimulant.

Pestle and Mortar Technique

The pestle and mortar technique has been used for centuries to grind, crush, and mix ingredients. This traditional method is still popular today, especially in countries where it has been used for generations to prepare food. Here’s a closer look at the three main techniques involved in using a pestle and mortar.

Grinding

Grinding is the process of reducing ingredients to a fine powder. This technique is commonly used for spices, herbs, and seeds. To grind, simply place the ingredients in the mortar and use the pestle to crush and grind them into a fine powder. It’s important to use a circular motion when grinding to ensure that all the ingredients are evenly ground.

Crushing

Crushing is the process of breaking down ingredients into smaller pieces. This technique is commonly used for garlic, ginger, and other vegetables. To crush, place the ingredients in the mortar and use the pestle to apply pressure and crush them into smaller pieces. It’s important to use a firm, steady pressure when crushing to ensure that the ingredients are evenly crushed.

Mixing

Mixing is the process of combining ingredients together. This technique is commonly used for making sauces, dips, and marinades. To mix, simply place the ingredients in the mortar and use the pestle to combine them together. It’s important to use a gentle, circular motion when mixing to ensure that the ingredients are evenly combined.

Applications in Modern Cooking

A wooden Pestle and Mortar filled with herbs. Surrounded by crushed herbs.

The mortar and pestle is a versatile tool that can be used in a variety of ways for modern cooking. Here are some of the most common applications:

Spices

Grinding spices with a mortar and pestle is a great way to release their full flavor profile. The rough texture of the mortar and pestle allows for the spices to be ground to the desired consistency, whether it be a fine powder or a coarse blend. This method of grinding spices is also much quieter than using an electric grinder and allows for complete control over the texture and amount of spice used.

Herbs

Herbs can be easily bruised and damaged when using a food processor or blender. Using a mortar and pestle allows for a gentle crushing of the herbs, which releases their essential oils and flavors without damaging the delicate leaves. This method is great for making fresh herb pastes or rubs for meats and vegetables.

Pastes

Making pastes with a mortar and pestle is a great way to create flavorful bases for soups, stews, and curries. The rough texture of the mortar and pestle allows for the ingredients to be pounded into a smooth paste, which can then be used to flavor a variety of dishes. This method of making pastes is also much more traditional and authentic than using a food processor or blender.

Using a mortar and pestle in modern cooking is not only practical, but it also adds a sense of tradition and authenticity to the dish. Whether it be grinding spices, crushing herbs, or making pastes, the mortar and pestle is a versatile tool that every home cook should have in their kitchen.

Maintenance and Care

Pestle and Mortar

To keep a them in good condition, it is important to clean and maintain it properly. Here are some tips for maintaining and caring for a traditional pestle and mortar:

Cleaning

After each use, the pestle and mortar should be cleaned thoroughly with warm water. Soap should not be used as it can be absorbed by the porous material and affect the taste of future ingredients. If necessary, a soft-bristled brush or sponge can be used to remove any stubborn residue. Once cleaned, they should be dried completely before storing.

Seasoning

To ensure the pestle and mortar is ready for use, it is recommended to season it before the first use. This involves grinding a handful of rice in the mortar with the pestle until the rice turns into a fine powder. The powder should then be discarded, and the pestle and mortar should be washed with warm water and dried completely.

Storage

To prevent any damage to the pestle and mortar, it should be stored in a dry and cool place. It is also recommended to store the pestle separately from the mortar to prevent any scratches or damage.

Maintenance

If the pestle and mortar become stained or discolored over time, a paste made from baking soda and water can be used to clean it. The paste should be applied and left for a few minutes before being rinsed off with warm water. This can help to remove any stains or discoloration and keep the them looking like new.

By following these simple tips, a traditional pestle and mortar can last for years and provide a reliable and effective tool for grinding and crushing ingredients.

Environmental Impact

Pestle and Mortar with powdered herbs with small wooden bowls of herbs around it.

Using a traditional mortar and pestle can have a positive environmental impact. Unlike electric grinders, which require electricity and contribute to carbon emissions, a mortar and pestle is entirely manual and does not require any electricity. This makes it an eco-friendly alternative for grinding herbs, spices, and other ingredients.

Traditional mortars and pestles are often made from natural materials such as wood, stone, or clay, which are biodegradable and do not contribute to landfills. This is in contrast to electric grinders, which are often made from plastic and metal and can take hundreds of years to decompose.

Another environmental benefit of using a mortar and pestle is that it allows for the use of whole herbs and spices, rather than pre-ground ones. Pre-ground herbs and spices often come in plastic packaging, which contributes to waste and pollution. By grinding whole herbs and spices with a mortar and pestle, one can reduce the amount of packaging waste and single-use plastics.

Using a traditional mortar and pestle is a simple and effective way to reduce one’s carbon footprint and contribute to a more sustainable lifestyle.