the appetizer:

Things Cooks Love by Sur La Table and Marie Simmons explores the best kitchen tools, including the Cast Iron Skillet and Portuguese Cataplana, provides information on world cuisines, from The Asian Pantry to The Moroccan Pantry, and offers recipes like Clam, Pork, Sausage, and Bacon Stew and Grilled Butterflied Leg of Lamb.

Cookbook Profile

Handheld Tools: Mortar and Pestle

Excerpt from Things Cooks Love by Sur La Table and Marie Simmons

Mortar and Pestle


There are many societies—unlike our own, which is hopelessly plugged in—where the mortar and pestle are still used on a daily basis. They are used to grind spices and legumes in India, to reduce chiles to a paste in Thailand, to mill grains in Africa, and to grind corn in Central America. Unplug your appliances and give the mortar and pestle a try. Basil leaves pounded into pesto have a more complex taste, spices ground to a powder are more fragrant, and garlic pulverized in a deep mortar is juicier.

The bowl-shaped mortar comes in many sizes and materials, including stone, marble, wood, and brass. The bat-shaped pestle, the pounding instrument, typically comes in marble, wood, or granite. For big jobs, like making pesto, sauces, or shrimp paste, you'll need a large (2- to 3-cup capacity), heavy mortar and pestle. For pounding spices and herbs to a powder, a smaller (about 1-cup capacity) mortar will work. But to accomplish any task, big or small, quickly and efficiently, you'll need a sturdy mortar and a weighty pestle.

Tips for Using

Place the food to be crushed in the mortar and pound on it gently but firmly with an up-and-down motion. The power of the action is determined by the stubbornness of the food being reduced.

To make salad dressing, mash garlic with salt to a paste. Add mustard and vinegar and work them in with the pestle. Slowly add the olive oil, stirring and pounding with the pestle until the dressing emulsifies. The next time a recipe calls for crushed garlic, reach for your mortar and pestle. They work as well as your garlic press.

Use your mortar and pestle to crush whole spices (cloves, allspice, cumin, coriander, peppercorns) to a coarse grind or fine powder.

For dry ingredients, a wooden mortar and pestle are best. For wet ingredients, use a nonabsorbent stone mortar and pestle.

Break walnuts or other nuts into coarse pieces by lightly pounding them in a mortar with a pestle.

The pounding and grinding slowly releases the natural oils and other flavor elements in foods, which heightens their flavor when combined with other ingredients.

You'll be amazed at how quickly a mound of fresh basil leaves will collapse into a soft paste when pounded in a mortar, making this tool ideal for pesto.

Care in Using

Wash with warm, soapy water and a brush. Rinse well and air dry.

Always consult the manufacturer's instructions.


If you enjoy cooking, the mortar and pestle will be a natural and pleasurable extension of your craft. But if you simply need to get the job done, plug in your food processor or blender.

Mortar and Pestle Recipes

Green Bean, Tomato, and Potato Salad with Almond and Basil Pesto | Grilled Butterflied Leg of Lamb


Buy Things Cooks Love: Implements. Ingredients. Recipes.


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Implements. Ingredients. Recipes.

Tips and Techniques

This page created May 2008