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What's the use of mortar and pestle?

Updated on January 27, 2014

Mortar and pestle - what to use it for?

Ok, so you've bought (or are about to buy) your mortar and pestle. Sure, it looks so cool. It conjures up delicious, magical, sensual images (at least in my mind it does - am I all alone?). But what do you actually use it for??? What on Earth can you do with mortar and pestle - apart from admiring it, of course?

If you happen to be an old style pharmacologist, you have no problem. If you're like pretty much the rest of humanity, you may think your options are rather limited.

Believe me, they aren't. I use mortar and pestle almost daily, for multiple purposes. Let's have a look at what exactly do I use them for.

Photo by Tiggered

Do you use mortar and pestle?

First things first. I need to know who I'm writing for :)

Do you use mortar and pestle in your kitchen?

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mortar and pestle not in use
mortar and pestle not in use

My mortar and pestle

A journey from fancy to usefulness

I'd been fascinated by the very idea of owning pestle and mortar since always. Now that I think about it, I find it hard to pinpoint what exactly did I find so appealing. Initially it was probably the vision of mixing my very own elixirs or medicines (don't laugh too loud - it was a childhood fancy, ok? ;). Later on, it was the power of stories that hooked me up for good - Chocolat convinced me that to work really stunning domestic magic, you simply need the right tools.

In the meantime I grew up and established my own kitchen. Tight budget ensured that necessary things took precendence over low-profile dreams like mortar and pestle. I thought - shouldn't I buy useful things? What would I use the stupid thing for, anyway? Sure, the dream is lovely, but can you actually do anything with it? Forget it. Until one day...

I came across mortar and pestle priced at tenner in - of all places! - my local Tesco and spontaneously decided to buy it. 'Who cares if it's useful, I've always wanted it and I'll get it, even if it's to gather dust in the corner' - I declared.

It does not gather any dust. It's in constant use and I keep coming up with new ideas for how to employ it. It adds the kick of fresh spices to my cooking and even helps me to save some cash now and again. How? Keep on reading.

Photo by Tiggered

Let's start with basics - how to use mortar and pestle?

I'm still not sure if I should be including this video. Using mortar and pestle is foolproof. I don't want to insult your intelligence by adding a manual to something obvious...

Let's say I'm including this for the record, ok? ;)

mortar and pestle used to grind pepper
mortar and pestle used to grind pepper

Use your mortar and pestle to...

...grind peppercorns

This is my personal number one when it comes to using pestle and mortar.

Comparing pepper powder from a packet to freshly ground pepper is like comparing mud to diamonds. The difference is HUGE. Freshly ground peppercorns smell heavenly and add a hundred times more taste to your dish. Once you try this little trick, you will never use factory powdered pepper again, believe me.

Sure, you could use a pepper mill. I don't. Mortar and pestle do the job just as well - with more style! - and they don't get blunt. Plus, after I'm done with pepper, I can wash them and use them for something else.

Photo by Tiggered

Using mortar and pestle vs. using pepper mill

Which one do you prefer for grinding pepper?

Proper pepper grinder

Proper pepper grinder

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    Nothing beats mortar and pestle

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      using mortar and pestle to crush spices
      using mortar and pestle to crush spices

      Use your mortar and pestle to...

      ...grind gingerbread spices

      I love, love, love making my own gingerbread spice mixture, for two main reasons:

      1. Freshly crushed seeds have much more flavour.

      2. I can decide how much of each spice I want to use.

      I tried to 'grind my own' even before I bought mortar and pestle. You'd probably laugh yourself silly if you saw me waving a meat mallet I tried to use for that purpose - not a very successful method, unless you like big bits of cloves etc. in your food (and all over your kitchen).

      What can you play with? Cardamum. Cloves. Nutmeg. Allspice. Aniseed. These are my standard assortment but really, you can grind anything you want - your imagination is the limit.

      Photo by Tiggered

      using mortar and pestle to make pesto
      using mortar and pestle to make pesto

      Use your mortar and pestle to...

      ...make pesto

      'Pesto' and 'pestle' they even sound similar, don't they? Actually, this is not a coincidence. I won't get you through all the boring ethymology, but pesto is called pesto because it is supposed to be made with pestle and mortar.

      Today it is usually prepared with food processor, but I still prefer my humble mortar and pestle - mainly because I don't have a food processor, haha. Guess what - I don't regret it. My old-fashioned way works just as well.

      Oh, and remember, you can make pesto out of pretty much anything green, not necessarily out of (expensive) basil. I wrote more about it here.

      Photo by Tiggered

      How to make basil pesto using pestle and mortar?

      using mortar and pestle to crush almonds
      using mortar and pestle to crush almonds

      Use your mortar and pestle to...

      ...chop nuts

      Ok, maybe 'chop' is not the best word here. 'Crush' seems more accurate, but either way you get the same thing - small pieces of nuts, ready to mix into your cake or dessert.

      I always HATED chopping nuts the 'normal' way. The malicious bastards kept jumping off my cutting board and I ended up with more nuts scattered around the kitchen than in the cake. But this is all in the past - now all it takes is a few gentle nudges with the pestle and nuts are ready to use.

      Photo by Tiggered

      Ready to use!

      Ready to use!
      Ready to use!

      Photo by Tiggered

      using mortar and pestle to crush garlic
      using mortar and pestle to crush garlic

      Use your mortar and pestle to...

      ...crush garlic

      Here's another case when my multi-purpose mortar and pestle does the job of other device, keeping my kitchen clutter free.

      Garlic press. Do you own one? I don't and it used to be a bit of a worry when I was cooking some dishes. Chopped garlic is fine in most cases, but sometimes you just need garlic paste and that is that. I know a neat trick for crushing garlic with a knife, but it takes time and effort, so I rarely bothered.

      These days I simply crush garlic cloves in the mortar. It takes about five seconds. AND mortar and pestle are easy to clean afterwards - which cannot be said about a garlic press.

      Photo by Tiggered

      If you want to use mortar and pestle just like mine...

      coffee beans
      coffee beans

      Use your mortar and pestle to...

      ...grind coffee

      Some two years ago I've made a big change in my life - I stopped drinking instant coffee and got hooked on ground stuff instead. I never looked back. Now I'm toying with the idea of taking this revolution even further, i.e. buying coffee beans and grinding them myself. Can you get any fresher?

      My first thought was, obviously, a coffee mill. Yes, well... My budget is still kinda tight, so it's simply not happening right now.

      It's tme for my favourite thought exercise: instead of buying something new, how to achieve the desired effect with what you already have?

      You know the answer. Mortar and pestle.

      Photo source

      mortar and pestle used to crush herbs
      mortar and pestle used to crush herbs

      Use your mortar and pestle to...

      ...crush herbs

      While extremely useful in the kitchen, this is not the only place where using mortar and pestle is convenient.

      I won't even start on the idea of making your own medicine - you can if you have proper herb knowledge, I don't. I use dried herbs in crafts, to get some colour and aroma without artificial additives.

      My recent project involved dried mint, crushed into fine dust (mortar and pestle, of course). It turned my homemade candles a lovely shade of forest green and gave them fresh (although rather faint) minty smell.

      I imagine it would work just as well if added to homemade lip balm or a salve or... My point is simple - crushed herbs can be useful, even if you're not a pharmacologist.

      Photo by Tiggered

      Mortar and pestle FAQ

      I'm monitoring search enquiries that landed readers on this page and I've decided to try and answer at least some of the questions asked.

      Are you supposed to wash pestle and mortar?

      Oh yes. Unless you want your black pepper to smell like yesterday's garlic or your pesto to taste like gingerbread spices from two days ago. It's also a question of food safety - it's ok to leave dry spices in the bowl for a while, but anything wet must be quickly taken care of or it will get all yucky. I'm not really sure if it's ok to wash pestle and mortar in a dishwasher (I don't use the device), but a quick rinse under running water takes about 5 second and is sufficient.

      How do you use mortar and pestle? - IF you use them, that is :)

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