When my palate is needy, there’s a pesto I love to make: a rough-textured, smoky-tasting blend of toasted pumpkin seed, garlic, olive oil and cayenne pepper. It’s drier than traditional herb pestos, yet it holds a moist crumb. Its irregularity — creamy and a little grainy, in a good way — is something I find thoroughly addictive.
But the mixture is dry enough that labeling it as a pesto seems a little misleading, unless you’re already familiar with the etymology. Pesto translates, more or less, into “pounded,” from the Italian pestare, “to pound,” and it calls to mind the traditional means of making that fragrant Ligurian sauce of basil, garlic, pine nuts and olive oil: a mortar and pestle, which, incidentally, shares the same linguistic roots.
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.
You also lose, with a machine, some of the sensory bliss of preparation. The heady scent of lightly crushed fennel seed or the toasted, buttery notes of ground walnuts don’t come through under a dome of plastic. It’s partly that fragrance, building anticipation for the meal to come, that makes cooking feel more of a craft, less of a chore.
A machine “doesn’t give you the same crush, the same crumb, the same powder,” says cookbook author Paula Wolfert, whose “Food of Morocco” was published last fall. “It doesn’t look the same, it doesn’t feel the same in your mouth. And people who know, they know.”
Wolfert collects mortars and pestles like she collects clay pots; they are both echoes of her travels and also a sample record of the ways in which different types of mortars and pestles evolved to suit the needs of different cuisines. She describes brass mortars in Morocco for crushing parsley or cilantro into a paste (a menace to clean, she says); an elongated Tunisian mortar and pestle just two inches wide she once used for what she calls “the best garlic paste I ever made”; and the vitrified ceramic mortars of northwestern Italy that, with some skill, turn basil leaves into a silken mass for Liguria’s storied pesto.
But for versatility in her own kitchen, Wolfert favors a three-cup-capacity Thai granite mortar and pestle, which she bought years ago in San Francisco’s Chinatown and calls on for the majority of her needs, from crushing nuts to making harissa.
Jaffrey’s preferred tool is small, a mortar and pestle made of a bell metal alloy she brought home from India, perfect, she says, for small amounts of anything. For larger jobs, she uses a coffee grinder.
How well you match your mortar and pestle to your needs will encourage you to reach for it daily or swear off the little bit of elbow grease it requires indefinitely (see sidebar below). Don’t try, for instance, to make a walnut sauce in a slick-surfaced marble mortar with a deep, narrow bowl. It will work, eventually, but will also do little to persuade you of its indispensability, and the walnuts will fight with you, besides. Better would be a large granite mortar like Wolfert’s, whose surface, faintly rough to the touch, provides enough grip to keep nuts from flying and room to work the pestle without crowding.
In general, if you’re going to be grinding moderate amounts of anything, look for mortars that hold at least two cups’ worth, with bowls not overly shallow, deep or steep-sided. Surfaces with a little roughness, such as granite or some earthenware, will make your job a little easier than overly smooth ones such as marble or wood.
Other tricks to consider: A pinch of salt added to what you’re grinding will speed the process, easing garlic cloves into a paste and toasted cumin seed into a powder. It also helps to remember that your technique should depend on what kinds of ingredients you’re working with: Garlic, ginger, spices and otherwise fibrous ingredients respond well to deliberate, vigorous pounding, but processing herbs to a paste asks for a little more finesse, moving the pestle in a downward-pressing circular motion to grind the herbs and lightly pound them simultaneously. No matter the material or the ingredients, using the mortar and pestle correctly, with focus and even some rhythm, should feel less like an exercise in aggression and more like culinary therapy.
It takes more practice, and time, than whirring ingredients through a food processor; it’s true. But if you ever find yourself coveting a shortcut halfway through a batch of chili paste, remind yourself that there’s no multi-part appliance to clean after dinner. That’s a plus.
Horton will join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.