Mortar and Pestle Basics

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Mortars and pestles are so varied, from antique (even ancient) to merely vintage to new. They are available in different sizes and shapes suiting kitchen jobs sweet and savory, large and small, and ingredients hard, soft, sticky, salty, leafy, nutty or grainy. It is best to stock at least two sizes. I have one mortar especially for making vinaigrettes, working with herbs and doing basic garlic or lemon duty, and another dedicated to sweet spices, nuts and scented sugar.

One person's mortar and pestle is another person's molcajete (Mexico) and still another's suribachi (Japan). You can find mortars of almost any material: lava, volcanic rock, wood, brass, marble, granite, cast iron, vitreous pottery, ceramic, glass, soapstone, sandstone, jadeite and clay. Rough finishes, such as a Thai granite or Mexican mortar, make short work of grains and garlic. A Japanese mortar, with its converging relief work of grooves on a shallow incline, invites you to grind garlic and ginger along the sides.

Wood and brass mortars are more likely to transfer flavors, so take care what you use them for. With concerns about bacteria, I lean toward mortars with nonporous surfaces. Those require just a quick wash in hot water.

Pair size with function and the design that suits your needs best. A roomy, wide mortar is great for garlic and pesto; a smaller, narrower one is ideal for spices. As for the pestle, look for a wide, stumpy bottom.

A stroll in a kitchen shop or an Internet search will quickly yield a plethora of great mortars and pestles, but even hardware stores usually stock a couple of choices. EBay is a treasure chest of new and old sets, but watch those shipping costs, and ask if there are any cracks. Medical laboratory supply places are another place to find bargain-price vitreous (usually white) mortars.

Here's where to buy two new versions, one old-fashioned and one purely modern:

· For the classic British model made by Mason Cash, go to Models range in price from $19.75 for small (3 1/2 inches) to $79 for large (8 inches).

· For a sleek design in porcelain and stoneware by Atelier Orange, go to Models are $42 for small (3 3/4 inches) and $60 for large (5 1/2 inches).

-- Marcy Goldman

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