Good cooks and herbalists treasure—and use—a tool that’s been around for millenia.
Born in prehistory, the mortar and pestle have taken many forms over the centuries: the porcelain cooks’ tool, far left; the Japanese suribachi, center; wooden and metal incarnations, top and bottom; and the Mexican metate y mano, above.
Photographs by Renée Comet
Why should every good cook—and everyone who loves herbs—own and use at least one mortar and pestle? For history: the ceremony of using ancient tools, the joy of knowing the rhythm of how they work. For celebration: food feeds both body and soul, and the act of preparing it should be a pleasure, not a chore. And finally, for quality: there is a depth of flavor to spices and fresh herbs prepared this way that you just can’t get from a food processor.
When I eat, I want to be nourished, but it’s really depth and complexity of flavor that I seek most. I get it by preparing good quality, fresh foods, herbs, and spices simply. As a cook and an herbalist, I find that the mortar and pestle, along with my knives, my mezzaluna, and my wooden cutting board, are my most-used kitchen accessories.
Mortars and pestles for crushing and blending seeds, roots, herbs, and other foods probably date back to prehistory, although information on their origins is hard to find. It’s only logical that early man and woman picked up the nearest rock and used it to crack open the nuts they gathered. Eventually they found similar tools to grind seed or grain into a powder, so that they could mix it with water to form a gruel and grind herbs and roots to flavor it.
Evidence of mortars and pestles as they exist today dates to around 1000 b.c. They were essential tools for preparing food and medicines, used the same way then as they are today in kitchens and chemical laboratories.
My own search for information on mortars and pestles started at the library and went from there to the Internet. At first, I had difficulty finding information because I approached the subject as a cook; my own interest in this herbalist’s tool is its culinary use. But once I began searching from the pharmaceutical angle, my quest was rewarded.
I found all types of mortars and pestles for sale, private collections on display, and even instructions for how to make one yourself on a woodturning lathe. I have included some of these sources at the end of this article so that you can enjoy them as well. (Click here for resources.)
The mortar and pestle were the first tools used to make medicine. They became both the symbol and the actual tool for the ancient apothecary and for the modern pharmacist. The first record of a mortar and pestle dates to 1550 b.c. in the Ebers Papyrus. The Egyptians and Persians both used them for culinary and medicinal purposes.
Old Roman and Greek mortars made of stone and marble are shallow and bowl-like, rather than deep and cup-like. With the medieval age, around the fourteenth century, came the use of bronze in making mortars and pestles. Bells were cast in bronze; a bell is similar in shape to a mortar; and bellmakers, or founders, as they were called, began making bronze mortars after the fourteenth century.
If you think about it, a mortar, when struck with a pestle, makes a bell-like sound whether it’s made from metal, porcelain, or marble. (I love making music with them when I’m pounding herbs or seeds; I can actually get a rhythm going.)
Eventually, by the sixteenth century, mortars were decorated with knobs or handles. Some were made with spouts for pouring. Renaissance craftsmen gave them the flourishes popular at the time. Artisans all over Europe produced mortars and pestles of different shapes, sizes, and complexity from bronze and wood.
Bronze mortars and pestles were the most popular for pharmaceutical use because the bronze was less permeable than other metals as well as the wood, stone, marble, or other materials then in use. Drug makers wanted to avoid contamination by unwanted residues in the remedies they mixed in a mortar. But with use, bronze develops a patina; its surface turns a dark brownish green. Around 1780, mortars and pestles made of biscuit porcelain were introduced. This material is not affected by acids and is easily cleaned. More than two centuries later, this type of mortar and pestle is still being used.
Today you may see newly made or antique mortars and pestles made of marble, granite, bronze, iron, or brass; hardwoods such as beech, maple, or locust; exotic hardwoods such as ebony, lignum vitae, or osage orange; and the pharmaceutical standards of high-fired porcelain or glass. Decorated pottery mortars can also be functional if the inside of the mortar remains unglazed. (Typically the pestle is made of wood; however, if it’s constructed of pottery, then its tip should be unglazed, too.)
Mortars and pestles come in various shapes and sizes for different purposes. A large, wide bowl shape made from porcelain is perfect for making mayonnaise or large batches of pesto, but is less suited to grinding seeds. Use porcelain, marble, glass, or pottery mortars for pounding fresh herbs or for making sauces containing oil. Larger, flat-bowled mortars are ideal for making spice pastes, especially if the recipe contains a lot of fresh chiles, herbs, or garlic and onion.
Wood mortars and pestles can absorb and hold flavors, so they tend to be less useful. They can even absorb oils that later become rancid. And unless the wood is hard, you can’t get as much friction going. Metal can impart metallic flavors to the food. A deep cup-shaped mortar works best for grinding seeds (bowl-shaped mortars allow seeds to bounce out and fly all over the place). Heavy stone or granite mortars and pestles, especially those with ridged or pitted bowls, are suited for crushing fresh spices or herbs such as chiles, gingerroot, echinacea root, comfrey root, and lemongrass. The textured surface helps to grip the material you’re pounding and keep it from flying out of the mortar.
— Susan Belsinger is the author of Flowers in the Kitchen (Interweave, 1991), coauthor of Basil: An Herb Lover’s Guide (Interweave, 1996), and a frequent contributor to The Herb Companion. She has a collection of over two dozen mortars and pestles—many more than we could picture here. Her favorite mortar and pestle weigh in at seventeen pounds and have probably logged more frequent-flyer miles than the average CEO.
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