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A lot of people think that anything an old-fashioned mortar and pestle can do, a modern appliance (like a food processor or blender) can do better. But if you’ve gotten serious about authentic pesto or homemade curry paste, you know in many cases the grinding, blending, emulsifying action of a hefty mortar and pestle yields a subtly, but significantly better result.
Not all sets are created equal, however, and not every design is right for every home cook. Here’s how to find the best mortar and pestle for your culinary interests and kitchen space.
This sturdy set should more than satisfy most home cooks in need of a mortar and pestle. It’s big and sturdy, as a mortar and pestle set should be, without being overwhelmingly bulky and heavy. The mortar has a well-shaped bowl with a 2-cup capacity. The set weighs in at 7 pounds. A heavy pestle like this one combined with the rough-textured surface of the bowl lets you easily grind whole spices to a fine powder without chasing them around the interior.
It's also a good size for common mortar and pestle tasks such as guacamole, salsa, curry paste, and pesto. This is an ideal tool for those times you want to quickly turn sharp raw garlic into a more mellow paste with a few efficient thumps. (Crushed garlic is an upgrade in almost any recipe that calls for minced garlic.) This versatile mortar and pestle set is equally adept at grinding wet or dry ingredients.
The granite surface of this mortar and pestle seems smoother than other versions that are more obviously ridged and rough-textured. The stone, however, is filled with tiny pits that are pretty efficient at grinding ingredients almost as well as craggier surfaces.
What sets this mortar and pestle apart is the silicone base. It feels steadier than others made from stone, which can easily slide around. The base also softens the impact of pounding with the pestle, making it more comfortable to use more force. Its relatively compact size and manageable weight (less than 3 pounds) are ideal for small spaces, where it will need to be stashed away between every use.
Like cast iron cookware, most mortar and pestle sets need to be seasoned before use. Usually, this starts with washing it by hand out of the box (many mortar and pestles are not dishwasher-safe) and then drying it thoroughly. Then, you want to grind a few tablespoons of plain white rice to a fine powder to get the surface ready to use. Refer to the instructions that come with your mortar pestle for details on how to season and care for yours.
This tidy, well-balanced mortar and pestle duo is especially efficient at grinding dried spices in small quantities. (You’ll notice immediately that spices ground just before use are far more fragrant and flavorful than those bottles of pre-ground spices.)
This set is attractive enough to be a permanent fixture on your counter, but compact and light enough to stash away if need be. The granite pestle is heavy for its size, which helps in thoroughly pulverizing tough peppercorns or coriander seeds without breaking a sweat. Unlike many other mortars and pestles, this set splits the difference between a polished and unpolished surface. The bowl’s exterior and top of the mortar are polished smooth for easy cleaning, while the bowl’s interior and pestle’s tip are unpolished for better grinding.
This set is inexpensive without sacrificing style and quality. Made from marble, the mortar’s bowl has the ridged interior you’ll need for maximizing grinding success while minimizing effort, especially when it comes to tough, whole dried spices.
Its modest size makes it a workable addition to even smaller kitchens, and thanks to the two-toned design and polished exterior, it's also attractive enough to store on your countertop or kitchen shelf. One of the handiest features is that the mortar is reversible. Flip it over, and you’ll find a small bowl perfect for grinding a teaspoon of freshly toasted cumin or pulverizing a little fresh ginger.
If you want to make a statement, this stunning white mortar with its handsome wooden pestle might be the one for you. The mortar is made in Italy from Carrara marble, so it should come as no surprise this set is especially adept at making pesto the old fashioned way. (Add your sauce to fresh homemade pasta for maximum Italiano vibes.)
The beechwood pestle is made for creating lush, smooth emulsions of fragrant basil leaves, pine nuts, garlic, and olive oil. You can also grind hard, dry spices, of course, but it will take a little more brute strength when you are working with a lighter wood pestle instead of something weightier, like granite. But if your goal is having a beautiful mortar and pestle or making an authentic version of pesto superior to what you can achieve with a food processor, this is a kitchen essential.
If your signature dish is guacamole, this traditional molcajete (that’s Spanish for mortar and pestle) should be on your wishlist. There’s no better vessel for making and serving the classic and crowd-pleasing Mexican dip. Made of granite, this set will quickly and easily grind your tomatoes, jalapenos, cilantro, and avocado.
You’ll also get good performance from this set for all the other things you want a mortar and pestle to do, but it’s especially perfect for making any taco night feel like a trip to your favorite Mexican restaurant. You can proudly serve your guacamole right in the molcajete you mixed it in. If you want to go all the way, make your own homemade tortillas.
There are times when you want to whip up a party-size batch of salsa. Or maybe you want to make enough curry paste to last you the rest of the year. For times like these, a dainty mortar and pestle simply will not work. You’ll need a seriously sizable mortar and pestle for those kitchen projects, and this set will not let you down.
This big boy warrants pride of place on your countertop. It’s heavy enough (9 pounds) that you won’t want to haul it in and out of the cabinet every time you need it. The bowl holds 4 cups, so you’ll have all the room you need to pound out plenty of pesto. Sturdy sides will hold all your ingredients where you want them—in the bowl and not on the floor. The weight of the pestle means grinding up spices requires less of your elbow grease.
What to Look for When Buying a Mortar and Pestle
Size: The size of your mortar will depend on what you use it for. If you plan to crush herbs and spices, garlic, or ginger exclusively, a small mortar is sufficient. Bigger projects like guacamole, hummus, pesto, or fresh salsa call for a larger mortar. It's equally important to make sure your pestle isn't too skinny or short so that your hand doesn't hit the edge of the mortar. Also, the head of the pestle must be broad enough to properly pulverize.
Shape: You're going to want an evenly round bowl to make sure you can swirl around and crush every piece of food in the mortar. Cylindrical bowls with sharp corners make it harder to reach contents with the pestle.
Material: Try to avoid mortars with a super smooth, glossy bowl because they lack the abrasiveness needed for grinding and shearing foods. In most cases, solid stone is best—such as marble or granite—because it's so strong and durable. Unlike ceramic, you can really drive some force into grinding and crushing without worrying about cracking or chipping. Wood is another wonderful choice in certain situations—wooden pestles are certainly much softer on the hands—though it is usually less effective than stone.
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Joy Manning is a food writer and recipe developer. Her work has appeared in many publications including The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Washington Post. She’s the author of Almost Meatless and Stuff Every Cook Should Know.