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Get a Mortar and Pestle

The most important kitchen implements not found in a typical kitchen are the mortar and pestle. Personally, I can’t see how one could live without it. Real cooks can’t do without a mortar and pestle, but I’ve met plenty of good home cooks who don’t have these essential tools in their batterie de cuisine. They seem to believe that mashing something in a mortar is too labor intensive for their daily cooking.

I see the mortar and pestle as essential. I use the mortar and pestle on a quite frequent basis. There are many preparations that need something crushed and mashed by pounding, resulting in a consistency that cannot be achieved by a food processor. The most familiar recipe you would make with a mortar and pestle is pesto. The meaning of the word pesto says it all. It’s from the Italian pestare, to pound, and food processors don’t pound, they cut and slice rapidly.

Although pesto is the obvious first preparation for your new mortar and pestle, why not truly impress your guests and make the admittedly labor-intensive but extraordinary Catalan lobster preparation known as Llagosta a l’Ampurdán, which begins with the pounding in a mortar of garlic, saffron, almond, hazelnuts, parsley and toast. This is a quite rich dish usually served as a tapa. It’s an unforgettable dish of land and sea made with live lobsters braised with white wine, mixed with snails, and tomatoes. And it all began with the humble mortar.

You can find lots of mortars and pestle sold in the home and kitchen department section of online retailers. Cooks should all have a mortar and pestle, and there are some things you should know before buying one.

  • The material is important. The best mortars are made of marble. Marble is very hard and is an excellent surface for grinding and pounding. Marble will not absorb odors from foods such as garlic, and marble is very easy to clean.
  • While some mortars are made of wood, only olive wood works well.
  • Avoid porcelain mortars, as they will break.
  • Pestles sold at most kitchen supply stores and online retailers are inferior because they are straight-sided, meaning they will eventually crack from the stress of pounding.
  • Unfortunately, one cannot buy the two parts separately, but the proper pestle should have a bulbous head that allows the pestle to disperse the energy affected through pounding. I know of only one source for a mortar and pestle with a bulbous head and that is the one sold at IKEA, although there must be others for those willing to search.
  • For Mediterranean cooking, avoid the Mexican mortar and pestle called molcajete y tejolote (mortar and pestle). This black textured mortar and pestle is made of basalt (volcanic rock) and over time the grinding makes and transfers volcanic sand into your food. It is also too shallow for many purposes.

There are two proper techniques when using a mortar and pestle. In the first, one crushes in a rubbing/pushing motion to break down the food. In the second, one can start pounding once the food is crushed and it won’t go flying out of the mortar. One can pound straight up and down for some items while turning the mortar and scraping down the sides as one pounds.

Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard / KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for “A Mediterranean Feast.” His latest book is “Hot & Cheesy” (Wiley) about cooking with cheese.

Photo: Mortar and pestle. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard/KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for "A Mediterranean Feast." His latest book is "One-Pot Wonders" (Wiley).