Grind it out- we’re coming out of this summer harvest season excited to use some of our favorite whole seeds and spices like fennel and coriander. If you’ve never used a mortar and pestle (or if you’re looking for a refresher for your technique), we’ve got you covered with this step by step guide.
First, a little history lesson. Mortar and pestle tools date back as early as 1550 BC in Egypt. These tools were used for more than spices; they are historically considered one of the earliest medicinal tools, used to grind and combine foods and herbs for medicinal use. They could be made of stone or earthenware as well as metal and wood. Throughout history, these tools can be found across cultures for different uses. You may have seen traditional guacamole preparations in a molcajete, or fresh Italian pesto made from ground together basil, pine nuts and olive oil.
Where should I buy a mortar and pestle?
Does my mortar and pestle need to be fancy? Nope- no matter your budget, you can find a great mortar and pestle online on stores like Food 52 or Amazon, in retailers like Target and Bed Bath & Beyond, or at a specialty food tools store like Williams-Sonoma.
You DO want your mortar to be heavy, to withstand all of the pressure you’ll put into grinding your spices.
Getting set up for spice grinding
For this process, you’ll need your spices of choice- we love fennel, cumin, and coriander, but you can also grind your saffron threads. This can also present a great opportunity to concoct your own spice blends, or recreate one of your favorites. This summer harvest season in Afghanistan produced high-quality cumin, fennel and coriander, all of which you can shop on the Rumi Spice website and in select retail locations.
You’ll also want a clean, dry mortar and pestle to ensure your powdered spices don’t clump together, unless you’re using the vessel to bloom spices like saffron in warm water.
If your mortar does not have grips on the bottom, or you’re worried about it slipping as you apply pressure, try placing a damp towel on your counter under your mortar. This will create a grip between your mortar and countertop to prevent slipping! We also recommend holding the base with one hand and using the other to grind with the pestle.
Grinding in action: Technique, Angle, and Results
Once you have your mortar and pestle set up and ready to go, it’s time to select your spices. If you’re looking to create a blend, you can add multiple spices to the base of your mortar to grind them together. Coarse salt can also act as an abrasive to help break down your whole spices more quickly (however, be sure to adjust your recipe for the added salt in your blend). We like to toast our spices first to maximize the flavor payout! You can bloom the spices in a hot pan if you’re using seeds like coriander or, for saffron, bloom after grinding in some warm water.
Once you’ve selected your spices, add them to the mortar and begin by crushing them with a downward motion to break up the whole seeds. Once you’ve broken them into smaller bits, you can begin with a circular grinding motion, pressing the spices against the bottom and sides of your mortar to create a finer powder.
If you’re using your mortar and pestle for recipes like pesto, the same rule applies. Crush your basil and choice of nuts overhead, then use the sides of the mortar to create a paste.
For blooming your saffron, grind the saffron threads with the pestle before adding warm water or sprinkling over ice to bloom. How do I care for my mortar and pestle?
When you’re finished with your grinding project, you want to immediately rinse your mortar and pestle with water to prevent staining and dried up food particles from sticking. Aim for a mild soap and rinse thoroughly, dry with a soft towel and store in a dry spot.
Care for your mortar and pestle may vary based on the material its made of, so check your manufacturer’s instructions. Our Rumi Spice Mortar and Pestle gift set includes a mortar and pestle made from Tunisian olive wood- perfect for gifting to your foodie friends (or for your own kitchen!