Mortar and pestle sets date back to the stone age, even predating agriculture. They've been used in similar forms all around the world throughout history. But now that we have food processors, mortar and pestle sets might seem quaint (at best), or just plain obsolete. And while it's true that food processors make quick, effortless work of tasks like chopping, dicing, mincing and pureeing, they don't crush.
Crushing is what you do with a mortar and pestle—deceptively simple tools that prevent overprocessing—and it can make a big difference. Crushing releases more of the natural oils, flavors and aromas in spices, herbs, seeds and nuts because it actually smashes their cell walls. It also lets you make things like salsa and guacamole (traditionally prepared with the Mexican version, molcajete y tejolote) come out the exact consistency you want them. And there's just no other way to get as vibrant and juicy a pesto or Thai curry paste.
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If you're willing to put in a little more time and effort with a mortar and pestle, use the right set. You want that work to pay off, after all. But using a poorly designed set or one better suited to different purposes can make the process unduly difficult, frustrating and less rewarding at tasting time.
What to Consider When Purchasing a Mortar and Pestle
Size: Generally, small mortars (that's the bowl, FYI) have up to a 1-cup capacity, while standard mortars are around 2 cups, and large ones are 3 cups and up with at least a 7- to 8-inch diameter. Those at the smaller end can be great for grinding spices, but you'll want at least a 2-cup capacity for most other purposes. Consider the quantities you'll typically prepare, but generally, you'll get more use out of a mortar that's at least 2 cups. And, of course, consider your storage space.
Pestles (the crushing tool) should have a broad, rounded base; if they're too thin, they'll push the ingredients around in the bowl more than pulverize them. While flat bases can crush, they don't allow for the swirling motion involved in good mortar and pestle technique. Also, they should be long enough that you won't keep scraping your knuckles on the rim of the mortar.
And just one note on the shape of the mortar: Stick with an evenly round bowl shape, which makes it easy to swirl and move the pestle around. There are cylindrical products out there, but the pestle won't get into their corners.
Material: Stone mortar and pestle sets—specifically granite or rough-hewn marble—are best for most purposes. They're hard, dense and unyielding enough, and they have an abrasive surface that facilitates grinding. Steer clear of stone sets with polished or smooth surfaces.
Cast iron mortar and pestles are effective for many uses too, though they have specialized cleaning and care requirements. Stainless steel mortar and pestles are low maintenance, but the material's smooth surface works against you in many instances. The same goes for ceramic, which is also more likely to crack or chip if you're really working the ingredients. Wood mortar and pestles sets work fine for some uses, like crushing less-tough spices, but their relatively low density and hardness (as well as the smoothed surfaces they often have) mean they're not as versatile as granite or marble.
This isn't to say that smooth mortar and pestle sets don't ever work. They're fine for ingredients that aren't too hard to break apart, like many toasted spices. Plus, they're easier to clean. But tougher ingredients, pounding, tenderizing (e.g., chili pepper skins) and preparations where texture is a priority call for an abrasive surface. And, since an abrasive surface also works for anything a smooth surface can handle, it's a more user-friendly, versatile option.
Seasoning: Many stone mortar and pestle sets require a specialized seasoning process before the first use. This involves grinding certain ingredients in the mortar to clear any grit, particles and debris out of the porous surface. Be sure to check the manual for product-specific instructions.
By considering these factors, along with what you're willing to spend on your new purchase, you can pick out the best mortar and pestle set for your particular needs and preferences.
The Best Granite Mortar and Pestle Set
ChefSofi Granite Mortar and Pestle Set
This is an excellent pick at a good price for a high-quality mortar and pestle set with a wide array of capabilities using dry and wet ingredients. It's sturdy and durable, and the unpolished granite has the abrasive surface you want. With a 2-cup capacity, it's a standard size that suffices for typical uses. The 7-pound heft, pedestal base, and a nonslip, anti-scratch adhesive hold the mortar steady and protect your countertop while you work its contents over. The pestle is comfortable to grip and well designed for its crushing and pounding tasks. You also get detailed seasoning and care instructions as well as technique pointers from the manufacturer. And, as an added bonus, this piece is attractive enough to double as a serving vessel.
The Best Marble Mortar and Pestle Set
Laevo Reversible Marble Mortar and Pestle Set
This unpolished marble mortar and pestle set is versatile and sold at an excellent price for its quality and elegant look. It's actually two mortar and pestle sets in one—both the mortar and the pestle are reversible. If you flip the mortar over, you can switch from a standard-sized bowl with a 2.2-cup capacity to a shallow bowl for tasks like grinding spices. You can also use both sides of the pestle, which are shaped differently to be more effective at a wider range of pulverizing jobs. These features let you work with different ingredients without introducing one batch's flavors and scents into the other or having to stop to clean. This product also comes with a silicone pad to use under the mortar as a nonslip mat that protects your countertop and doubles as a cover to keep the mortar contents fresher. And a small wooden spoon is included, too.
The Best Cast Iron Mortar and Pestle Set
Frieling 3-Piece Cast Iron Mortar and Pestle Set
If you decide to go with a cast iron mortar and pestle set, this one is designed to handle a significant range of common crushing tasks. Cast iron is basically indestructible, and its heft makes it sturdy and well-suited to tough work. This affordable set includes an extra bowl, and there's a rare feature you'll appreciate: A pouring spout built into the mortar. The pestle is comfortable to handle and has an effective head. Also, don't worry about stains with this black material—an issue that can arise with granite and marble. Just remember that cast iron is susceptible to rusting and must be hand-washed and dried thoroughly right away.
The Best Budget Mortar and Pestle Set
Greenco White Marble Mortar and Pestle Set
If you're searching for one of the lowest-priced mortar and pestle sets available that still has all the desirable characteristics of a versatile, durable set, look no further. This rough-hewn marble piece performs well and looks great, too. It's also compact, with a 4.5-inch diameter and only 2.5 inches tall, so it's a smart pick if you have limited storage space. One thing to be aware of, though, is that the pedestal base is a bit small for the shape of the mortar, so you may need to hold it steady with one hand more often than other products.
The Best Small Mortar and Pestle Set
Thunder Group Marble Grinder
If you don't want a mortar and pestle for preparing things like pesto, guacamole and salsa, but just want to grind small quantities of spices, a clove of garlic or some pills, this is the perfect set for you. It's only about 3 inches tall and wide, and has about a one-quarter cup capacity, but that makes it easy to tuck away in your kitchen. The coarse marble and well-designed pestle make easy work of anything you crush, and the broad pedestal base keeps the mortar steady while you're at it.
The Best Large Mortar and Pestle Set
ChefSofi Extra Large Granite Mortar and Pestle Set
For anyone looking to make more than a few servings of pesto, guacamole, salsa, chutneys or curry pastes, a large mortar and pestle set is called for. Attentive readers may notice that this is the larger size of our pick for the best overall granite mortar and pestle set. It has all the same desirable characteristics—versatility, a perfectly shaped bowl and pestle, unpolished granite, sturdiness and durability, an aesthetically pleasing look for use as a serving vessel and a nonslip protective pad—and it comes with two different sized pestles, allowing you to choose the easier option for different tasks. The 5-cup capacity and 8-inch diameter make this an extra-large model (with most large mortars only offering about a 4-cup capacity), but it's priced well even for a slightly smaller product.
The Best Mortar and Pestle Set for Salsa and Guacamole
IMUSA Granite Molcajete Spice Grinder
If you want a mortar and pestle set primarily for making salsa and guacamole (as well as other dips and spreads, like hummus), go with the style made specifically for it. In other words, get a molcajete y tejolote, the Mexican version of a mortar and pestle. This very budget-friendly product is made from non-porous granite, which helps prevent oil absorption, and it's relatively easy to clean. The pestle is shorter and has more rounded ends, facilitating the best techniques for making these sorts of preparations. The broader-than-average 6-inch diameter is nice, too. Plus, the mortar looks nice enough to keep your dips and spreads inside and serve. But don't worry if you ever want to grind spices or use the set for other purposes; it performs well across a variety of common mortar and pestle tasks.