Guide: Mortar and pestles for different jobs
Less easy to grasp is why the mortar and pestle is a stranger to so many modern home kitchens, where it is arguably most useful. Pesto (or Tunisian harissa, Thai chili paste or any number of other classic blends traditionally made in the mortar and pestle) is good enough reason to own one. But so are the ancient tool’s simplicity and its easy way with basic tasks such as pounding garlic or ginger into a paste, crushing freshly toasted spices and grinding coarse salt. It begs for use no matter what you are cooking.
The smallest mortar and pestle I own, a gray-blue marble one with a carrying capacity of a quarter-cup, I acquired many years ago on account of its cuteness. The diminutive size limited its range somewhat, but it was itself an ambassador of the mortar and pestle’s versatility, particularly for those inherently low-maintenance tasks that a machine or more specialized gadget simply makes a nuisance of.
“With spices, it makes such a difference if you use them fresh, and very often you need just a teaspoon of something,” says Indian cooking authority Madhur Jaffrey. “You can’t use a bigger machine for that.”
And yet it’s tempting to dismiss the mortar and pestle as a tool for purists, or for cooks in relentless pursuit of a challenge. It’s true that using one doesn’t always produce superior results (dried bread crumbs will turn out just as well in the blender); at other times, efficiency and an eye for self-preservation give higher-tech means an edge. It’s tough to say whether making a basil pesto for 20 with a mortar and pestle is a sign of tenacity or madness.
But the mortar and pestle is not a romantic tool. It may be a relic of culinary oldways, but the best reasons for using one today are practical at their core, and it all comes around to taste. Machines are efficient; they are rarely stewards of nuance. What you save timewise is often at the expense of texture, flavor, aroma, even color. Pestos and other herb sauces, notably, are more vivid and hold their color longer when made in a mortar and pestle.
The trouble with food-processor blades is that they do both violent and careless work; they chop, slice and shred, as opposed to the (gentler, really) crushing, pulverizing actions of the pestle, producing sauces and pastes with undeveloped flavor and fragrance. When you use a mortar and pestle, you work more fully, and with greater control, to release the ingredients’ oils and incorporate them, marrying their flavors. In a machine, you’re simply combining them.