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The last person I witnessed use a mortar and pestle was my grandmother, and even she was dissatisfied with how a few grains of coriander might regularly fly off.

But mortar and pestles remain very much on sale at stores and online (and most are not provided with a "safety cover"). This suggests that there is something to them, besides nostalgia.

Now consider a cook who has a good quality blade grinder, a dedicated burr spice grinder for spices (all burr grinders are meant for coffee beans, but it's not a workable arrangement to use the same burr grinder for coffee and spices), as well as a mortar and pestle.

When would a cook reach out for a mortar and pestle rather than an electric grinder for spices and a sharp knife for herbs?

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  • The crushing action of a mortar and pestle tends to release more oils than the blades of a grinder/food processor, so you'll get more aromatics. I don't know about "burr spice grinders" or how they work though; mine were all cheaper and bladed, and there was a noticeable difference between the end product from the mortar vs the grinder or food processor. Apr 18 at 20:43
  • @RoddyoftheFrozenPeas What you say makes a lot of sense, but does reaching boiling temperature after adding the ground spices (whichever way they were ground) or frying them before adding the other ingredients, not also fully release the oils? Not disbelieving, just wondering.
    – Sam7919
    Apr 18 at 22:42

5 Answers 5

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A pestle and mortar are quick to pick up and quick to clean for the next use. Especially with the cleaning, they're probably quicker for small quantities than using a grinder. Mine can also go in my dishwasher if I know I'm not going to use them again before it runs; if I am reusing it, a rinse is all that's needed.

They're also standard equipment and compact. Having multiple grinders, whether hand-powered or electric, takes cost and storage/work space for something that might not be used all that often, and you may well have to unplug something else to use them if electric.

Grinding herbs in a mortar is rather different, used for specific recipes. A sharp knife is the norm. I might get out a motorised chopper for large quantities (e.g. making pesto) but that goes on top of my stand mixer that's always out from making bread, and again can go in the dishwasher. Grinders I've used have always had parts that took effort to clean.

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  • 1
    Depending on what you're making, the marginal cleaning time may be zero. I'll often grind some spices in a mortar, then use it as the mixing bowl for the spices with other ingredients. (That's also the only time I use it for herbs, for things like chimichurri or guacamole.)
    – Sneftel
    Apr 18 at 15:54
  • @Sneftel good point. Both of mine are rather small, so I only do that for a dry coating, like my potato wedge seasoning that's spices and polenta.
    – Chris H
    Apr 18 at 15:56
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If I want a fine powder I don't reach for the mortar and pestle, I use a grinder as it's faster. A mortar and pestle is useful when you don't want a fine powder, sometimes you want something crushed to a specific consistency and a mortar and pestle is best for that.

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  • Neat, but can you provide an example or two? Here is a counter-example for context. Two basic spices in Indian curries are cardamom and coriander. I can't think of a case when I would want to fight their thick shells with a mortar and pestle until they reach a fineness that's suitable to leave in the dish. Hence an electric grinder is essential. The spices you're thinking of must be particularly brittle. Perhaps black pepper is one such example, but what else?
    – Sam7919
    Apr 19 at 13:46
  • 2
    Black pepper is a good example, I do sometimes crush cumin seeds actually, as well as fennel, as it helps to release their flavor. It's not just hard spices, you can crush ginger and garlic. I've used mine to crush salt flakes into a smaller but still flaky consistency.
    – GdD
    Apr 19 at 14:01
  • Garlic!! That's so far the most compelling ingredient for using a mortar and pestle. No need to see if every single hole in the garlic press is clear (before throwing it in the dishwasher).
    – Sam7919
    Apr 19 at 21:27
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    @Sam7919 Cardamom is an example of when I'd use a mortar and pestle over an electric grinder. I only really ever need cardamom in small quantities, like one or two pods. The mortar and pestle will effectively remove the pod casing, and crush the seeds but not powder them. I might be adding cardamom to a rice pudding, or warm milk or a chai tea. I usually want to crush it a bit but not pulverise it. My electric grinder won't work with 1 or 2 pods, and others that do I imagine there'd be more wastage than a mortar and pestle
    – Jason S
    Apr 20 at 11:55
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    @Sam7919 It’s not unusual if the spices are part of a garnish as well as for flavor that you want them non-uniformly crushed/ground and also probably want them in larger pieces (so they’re easier to see). For example, if I’m making cacio e pepe or a similar pasta dish, I’ll always preferentially use a mortar and pestle for the black pepper, because the larger, non-uniform, powder I get that way adds visual interest to the dish that is lacking otherwise. Apr 20 at 12:34
5

There are a few situations where a hand-operated mortar and pestle might be considered superior to an electric grinder or a mixer.

First of all, a mortar is slower, so you have greater control over how fine your crushed spices are, or maybe only partially crushed if you want to keep the texture of e.g. Szechuan peppercorns or coriander seeds.

A big reason mortars are still widely available is that they crush/press rather than chop/cut whatever you process. This can aid in the release of aromatic compounds like basil when making a pesto. SeriousEats has done a side-by-side comparison of mortar and pestle pesto vs. food processor pesto. The difference is clearly visible.

In addition, concerning pesto, the fast turning blades turn the olive oil bitter through aeration. One could apply this answer to other aromatic volatile compounds that are present in many spices/herbs.

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  • Note that the idea that blades super-oxidize olive oil is widely disputed.
    – FuzzyChef
    Apr 19 at 23:53
  • 3
    @FuzzyChef As I understand it, aeration unambiguously does not turn olive oil bitter, though it does increase its acidity, making it slightly sourer. What can make olive oil more bitter when blending is if your oil has high levels of phenols and you’re blending a water-based emulsion. When the secoiridoid phenols found in varying measures in olive oil transfer to the water phase in the emulsion, they produce a bitter flavour. At least that’s how I understand this SeriousEats article. Apr 21 at 11:36
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One more reason: for some foods, you want to "bruise" or "mash" them and not slice, chop, or puree them. Examples include Thai mango salad, Thai fish "omelette", and guacamole.

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I'm speculating a bit. A mortar and pestle may be a far better instrument than spoon (or fork) and bowl for mashing tamarind before straining out the pulp.

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