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Nose to the grindstone

(article, Ashley Griffin Gartland)

My first encounter with a mortar and pestle was years ago, at my boyfriend’s parents’ house. Looking for a bowl in the far reaches of a cupboard, I pulled out a small, white, porcelain mortar and pestle. 

Not knowing what it was, I decided the mortar would make an ideal container for the small serving of cereal I desired, and quickly replaced the pestle with a spoon as I poured myself a tiny bowl.

I’m not the only ignorant home cook to pronounce this culinary tool impractical. According to Bon Appétit magazine's 10th annual survey of its readers' cooking habits and preferences, announced in March, the mortar and pestle is the single most underutilized tool in the kitchen. (The most popular kitchen gadget? The microwave.) 

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="A granite mortar and pestle is a excellent tool for making a paste out of herbs and spices." credit="Photo: iStockphoto/michaelprice"]

Good mortars and pestles are made from hard materials that let you crush, by hand, a substance into a powder or a paste. They’re great for preparing guacamole, salsa, and pesto (the garlicky green spread even gets its name from the pounding pestle). Chefs also use the tool to crush mixed spices and make pastes and rubs for many a dish. 

But we’ve all gotten used to the preground spices, mixes, and sauces available at every grocery store. If we grind anything at all, it’s coffee beans (and the occasional spice blend) in a handy electric propeller grinder. Or we toss it all in the blender or food processor and call it good.

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn’t have the convenience of prepared foods or electricity. They relied on huge, makeshift mortars and pestles (typically a tree stump or flat rock paired with a grinding stone) to make meal and flour from previously indigestible grains. 

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Mortars and pestles are available at kitchen-supply stores nationwide, including Williams-Sonoma, Crate and Barrel, and Sur La Table.

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Many cultures today have their own versions of the tool. In Japan, earthenware mortars and pestles are called suribachi (the mortar) and surikogi (the pestle). Cooks in Southeast Asia and India prefer granite mortars and pestles, while traditional Mexican versions, known as molcajetes, are made of basalt. Western cooks often favor marble; it’s hard, smooth, hefty, and relatively non-porous. 

Cohesive materials, such as rock or ceramic, are best for preventing the mortar and pestle itself from shedding into the food being prepared. And smooth, non-porous materials both keep food from getting trapped in the tool’s surface and prevent previously ground items from accidentally flavoring new ones.

Whichever material you select, make sure both mortar and pestle are crafted of the same material, to equalize the pressure and assure even grinding. Look too for a contoured bowl that’s deep enough to contain your grinding. Some mortars have a convenient pour spout.

There are decidedly practical advantages to using a mortar and pestle instead of more conventional tools. For one, the grinding action required in a mortar and pestle gently releases the natural oils in herbs and toasted whole spices, instead of overheating them in an electric chopper. For another, the mortar and pestle gives cooks more control; it's practically impossible, for example, to grind spices too fine.

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But perhaps even more than the culinary creativity they encourage, mortars and pestles bring a romantic quality to kitchen preparation. “I threw this in the blender” just doesn’t have the same seductive appeal as “I made this by hand.”

“The mortar and pestle might have a bad rap of being a laborious activity, especially in this day and age where there is a power tool for every job,” says Mathew Slack, the executive chef at the Willamette Valley Grill in Salem, Oregon. “But the great thing about the mortar and pestle is the hands-on crafting, the gentle release of fragrances. It's a classic method that will never be outdone.”

p(bio). Ashley Griffin Gartland is a Portland-based food writer and the executive director of the Portland Culinary Alliance. She believes that mortars are wasted as cereal bowls.


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