My Mortar and Pestle

Mortar & Pestle

A long, long time ago, I remember an article in a food magazine where they asked a bunch of chefs and cookbook authors what their favorite piece of cookware was. But no one asked me.

There were all these smiling faces of happy cooks and writers, presumably whisking things up in their kitchens, chopping away at chocolate and toasted nuts, and spinning salads around and around and around. And talking about it!

Why no one bothered to ask me is anyone’s guess.


And after over twenty years, it finally dawned on my that I don’t have to sit by the phone one more afternoon waiting for the phone to ring. I can bypass the middle man, or woman, and tell you right here.

I will be silenced no longer!

While love my standing electric mixer and my professional-quality pots and pans, the one tool that’s irreplaceable in my cuisine is my mortar & pestle. When I moved to France, I wanted one of those jumbo models from Provence, glazed with a brilliant-yellow sheen and a stubby wooden pestle, obviously used by many a cook over the decades. But nowadays if you see one of those, it’s likely to cost hundreds of euros at an antiquaire.
(Anyone know if there’s a female equivalent—antiquese?)

So one day I was shopping in Chinatown here and came upon a shelf of mortar & pestles that cost around 15€ ($20) I lugged one all the way home on the Métro. (You may remember my sordid search?) And I’ve never regretted the pain of hauling it up and down all those underground stairs and sub-Parisian passageways one bit. Although at the time I thought I was sure to drop it and cause a scene during rush hour. When a friend saw mine, he said, “Why didn’t you pick one up for me too?

Uh…yeah, right.

I worship at the altar of my mortar & pestle and use it for everything, from noisily crushing spices, crushing seasoned salts, loudly smashing black olives for tapenade, mashing basil for pistou, forcefully pounding garlic for aioli and grinding caramelized nuts into smooth praline paste. It also makes for a nice workout, instead of plugging something in.

But I’m not sure my neighbors downstairs think so.

I just hope they remain silent about it a little longer than I did.


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33 comments

  • Great post.
    Randall Koll, my good friend and a talented San Francisco interior designer, recently completed a kitchen remodel for a serious cook — and my favorite part was a long stainless steel shelf filled with various size mortars and pestles.

    You’ve got me yearning for one of the Provencal types. There’s an excellent antique store in Aptos whose owner goes to France twice a year to shop—I’m going to see if she can find me one for less a doesn’t make-me-faint price.

  • Yep, our mortar and pestle (lugged home on the bus from Chinatown) was definitely worth that effort too. Unfortunately we’ve had downstairs neighbours pounding on the ceiling on pesto night…

  • now if I were to use a pestle, as you say, “instead of plugging something in” . . .
    (sorry, just couldn’t resist)

  • David,

    This is far and away my new favorite food blog — I can’t get enough. And if I weren’t helping my husband pay for law school, I’d come on one of your tours.

    I, too, adore my mortar and pestle. I got a teeny-tiny marble one and I can’t imagine life without (before?) it. But it was a pest to find one — I was living in Maine at the time, but in Portland, which by all accounts is as foodie-oriented a small city as the States can boast.

    I haven’t yet used it for pesto, for which I generally still haul out the Cuisinart (although I grate the Parm by hand first). But given that pesto is a close cousin of pistou, I should give it a whirl, no?

    Keep blogging! :)

  • A close friend passed away last month leaving behind many memories but also one of those Provencal mortars. The thing must have weighed 40 pounds. The taste of the last aioli I had that was pounded inside of it will stay with me for a while. His friends shared a variety of equipment from his kitchen, where he liked to spend a good deal of time, and his family took the mortar with them back to Nebraska where, I hope, it will continue to be used regularly. While a new mortar may work every bit as well, there is sure something nice to think about as you pound away in one that has been used for years and years by friends and strangers alike.

  • I bought my first just a few weeks ago. I already want a larger one! It’s terrible when your pesto spills over the sides.

  • Yours is (are?) gorgeous. I can’t believe I never thought to use a mortar and pestle for smashing olives. What a great idea. Thanks!

  • Funny, I just wrote a post on this for Accidental Hedonist where I’m guest writing for another 3 months… I named the kitchen tools I can’t live without and ironically, the mortar and pestle is one of the tools I can’t live without, yet don’t have. How can that be? It’s going to have to be fixed very soon. Yours is exactly the kind I have been looking for and they are surprisingly hard to come by :)

  • radish, have you tried Bangkok Center Grocery on Mosco St., between Mulberry and Mott? They have the big granite mortars as well as lots of other great stuff for cooking Thai. My husband (then my boyfriend) found mine there and lugged it home on the subway, surprising me with it. The shop is right next to the Fried Dumplings place where you get 5 dumplings for a dollar — another reason why it’s really worth the trip.

  • David, Thanks for the great post. I just bought my first-ever mortar and pestle, and haven’t used it yet. My intention was to use it for Indian spices, but you’ve provided some really great ideas to try as well.

    Your ice cream book also arrived in the same package. It’s so well-written and gorgeous! It was hard to put it down, even when my husband was talking to me. :)

    I can’t wait to start making some of your lovely frozen treats. Thank you and your editor for taking so much time to get it all just right.

  • David,
    I can’t believe how much you post! I have a mortar and pestle too, from Ecuador, god it’s huge, and well I think they used it for grains, I have crushed rye in it before for breads, as well some guacamole!
    I don’t use it as much as I should, don’t think my mom would make aioli with it, afraid to get stone bits in the sauce!

    Cheers,
    Jeremy

  • Oh my. I have had a mortar and pestle jones for a long time, but have yet to run across the perfect one. It’s hard to tell how big yours is from the photo, but it looks ideal. Lock your door!

  • David, you remind me of my mother.

    Only you’re not female…or 65…or Thai.

    But like you she can’t live without her mortar and pestle.

  • Incontestably a beauty, David. Much nicer than mine, but it looks so heavy I wonder if I would lug it to the counter often. Mine is white ceramic and not nearly so pretty.

    I’d really appreciate it if you’d fill us in more often on where it is so useful. Mine comes out for Indian spices usually, and doesn’t work often enough I’m sure.

  • radish: When I was in San Francisco, my friend who I was staying with bought two huge granite mortar & pestles from…of all places…Marshalls!

    (Amazon sells the Thai ones too, but the shipping’s probably a killer…)

    They were just $10 each and were very heavy granite too. You might try Marshalls (as if anyone of us needs an excuse to go to Marshalls!), or as Julie mentioned, try Asian supply shops in your area.

  • Outside Paris, you can still find decently priced new olivier wood mortar and pestle sets. If you find a dirt cheap second-hand one at Emmaus, grasp it, but a peasant like me can t understand the interest of cooking in a [probably false] antique one.
    Olivier wood objects are really pretty, the problem is they hate being in a dry appartment.

    I am not a fan of the heavy messy Chinese funerary urn, unless I can use them outside. I tend to drip them in the sink or on my feet at least twice a week.
    I currently use 6 assorted size Japanese mortars called suribachi. They are indented inside, so you can pound as in any mortar and also grate. That s more efficient except for very hard spices [star anis, that is]. I use them to pestle,store and serve. Did you try that style of mortar ?

  • David:
    I have been having a hard time finding a manufacturer or distributor for these beautiful granite mortar & pestles. I ordered one for testing but suspect it was made of composite. Any names for me? I would like to stock these in our shop.

  • I too am a M&P fiend – love, love, LOVE them. I have (5) of them, and three get regular (almost daily) use. I have the one you do – the big 40# granite one from Chinatown for making Thai curry pastes and pesto – that’s my favorite. A pain to lug around and clean, but great. Then I have the small brass one I got in India – used just for grinding cardamom for tea. The third one that gets regular use is the small marble one that you can find in any hardware store – I use it for grinding ginger, garlic and spices like cumin, etc, for when I don’t want to chop a lot or haul out the coffee grinder. I’ve completely stopped using the garlic press, as this does so much a better job.

    The M&P that gets the least use is a tall Laotian-style clay mortar with a wood pestle. That’s just used for making papaya salad, which I only make a few times a year – the stone ones bruise the papaya too much and this is milder. And I have an old brass one that was my great-great-grandmother’s from Minsk. As far as I can tell, every eastern European-descended Jewish family has the same one of these. They must have been giving them away back in the 1800′s. I look at it but don’t use it.

  • David,
    I love my wooden mortar and pestle too! I can’t do marble because it gives me the chillies (like finger nails on a blackboard). I’ve never owned a food processor and enjoy doing my prep work by hand. I’m glad you appreciate and love yours :)

    I swear the food tastes better somehow haha.

  • Hmm, now you’ve got me thinking…

    I think I’ll have to go to the Fruit Basket next time I’m in Albuquerque’s North Valley. They have Mexican ones at their store and they were reasonably priced too.

    I’ve also seen them at Cost Plus World Market, but the Mexican ones are so much more rustic and appealing.

  • I completely agree, something about the mortar and pestle, so simple yet nothing else is like it. I use it most often to bash garlic and lemon together for Middle Eastern recipes, and also for nuts. If I find myself in a kitchen without one, a sturdy bowl and the heel of an ice cream scoop are a great substitute.

  • David, “antiquaire” is a noun that already ends in “e” so that is the static form. Usually if it already ends in e the noun is feminine (altho there are myriad exceptions to this rule!) Just call me your resident grammar guru(e)(!)

  • I have used a Japanese version which has ridges along the inside. It meshes the ingredients quickly with little pounding needed if any. Better results than I can get in the granite/Asian style, but it is much smaller. Maybe they come in larger version, though I haven’t seen them.

  • David, the trick is to put a telephone book under the mortar when you pound away at it. It muffles the noise brilliantly.

  • kuri & Sarah: I had a suribachi back in San Francisco, which are great for spices and such, but since they’re porous, they do retain odors and stain. But they sure are pretty…and easier to lift.

    bobogal: That’s a great tip, except my apartment has what they call in France an “American bar” kitchen, which means the countertop is way up high, already at shoulder level.

    If I put my Parisian Pages jeaunes underneath, I’d be pounding away over my head!

    Maryann: I don’t have a food processor here, hence my devotion to my mortar and pestle. The only problem is, the mortar and pestle isn’t very effective for making frozen margaritas.

  • Hi David, to muffle the noise we put folded towels or newspapers underneath. Or you could do it Asian style which is to sit or crouch on the floor, cradling the bowl, very good for when you need to exert more pressure or work through a big batch.

  • I LOVE Marshalls! That’s awesome that you found yours there. I should pay that store a visit, albeit it’s painfully disappointing in New York. It’s TJ Maxx too, not Marshalls (but same company…) Thanks for the tip! :)

  • I’m working my way through Chez Panisse Vegetables and have to admit that using one of our mortar & pestles instead of the Cuisinart made an amazing pesto.

    Would it be sacrilegious to wish YOU had written the narrative of that book?

  • Sigh. I don’t own one! It’s my next buy, after a molcajete and a presa tortilla. My local gourmet appliance store owner says that you actually need a few mortars-and-pestle, including this odd looking Japanese one with a striated bowl for crushing herbs. He says it’s great for pesto.

    How many do you own?

  • Kyla: I only have one right now; the one shown. Since I live in a space-challenged Paris apartment (which may be the understatement of 2007).

    My jumbo mortar and pestle is the SUV of mortar and pestle’s—it’s a bruiser!

  • A M &P is one item I have on my list to buy when I move into a nicer apt. with more kitchen space.

  • When I tell people if I had to choose between my mortar and pestle and my blender, I’d choose the M & P every time, people look at me as if I’m crazy. But it’s so great to have it sitting on the counter for all those small jobs. And it’s beautiful!

  • About two months ago, I started going crazy for granitas. This is without, mind you, knowing about The Perfect Scoop, or even that you existed. (It was due to an amazing watermelon granita at Michael Mina here in SF — which then led me to various food blogs and then here, coincidentally)

    I found that a bartender’s muddler worked extremely well to get my juice/herb/fruit mixtures the way I wanted them…. (too many mojitos in my past, I think)

    But then I started using the muddler for all sorts of things — grinding up sea salt, cumin seeds, etc…. and my granitas started tasting a little funny….

    NOW I know what I need.
    A mortar and pestle!