While the primitive-looking mortar and pestle might seem like it would be better off left in the Stone Age, there are actually a number of good reasons to own one. It’s a low-tech multitasker, allowing you to blitz whole spices into powder and grind wet ingredients into pastes and sauces. Fans of these tools—including many professional cooks—say that the quality of the foods produced by a mortar (the bowl component) and pestle (the club-like component) are superior in flavor and texture to foods that come out of a food processor. Instead of simply cutting whole spices or herbs into tiny pieces, as the blades of a grinder or food processor might do, the pestle crushes them, extracting more aromatic oils and flavor compounds in the process. Finally, mortars and pestles are dead simple—there are only two parts to use and clean and no sharp blades to nick yourself on. The best versions are also nearly indestructible.
Since we last tested these tools, our favorite, the Frieling Goliath Natural Stone Mortar & Pestle, has been redesigned. So we decided to take a fresh look at mortars and pestles. We tested seven models, priced from about $13 to about $100, using them to grind peppercorns to different levels of coarseness, to make garam masala from whole spices, and to make pesto.
The best models made it clear why these tools have their champions. Yes, electric tools are faster: You’ll make pesto more quickly if you use a food processor (about 40 seconds compared with 8 to 16 minutes in the mortars and pestles), and spice blends can be produced in a lot less time in a blade grinder (about 15 seconds compared with 9 to 20 minutes in the mortars and pestles). But in some cases, a mortar and pestle can actually give you a speed advantage. Using our favorite pepper mill, it took a wrist-breaking 34 minutes to coarsely grind ½ cup of peppercorns—the amount needed for our Pepper-Crusted Beef Tenderloin Roast recipe. By contrast, grinding the peppercorns using our favorite mortar and pestle took less than 5 minutes, and it performed just as well.
Even if you do have electric tools, you might want to consider using a mortar and pestle for the nuanced flavor and texture it can deliver. While we didn’t detect much of a difference between garam masala made using the blade grinder and garam masala made using the higher-rated mortars and pestles, pesto made using the higher-rated mortars and pestles did indeed have a more complex, savory, and cohesive flavor and a softer, more luscious texture than pesto made in the food processor, which, while still delicious, had more discrete bits of pine nuts, garlic, and basil. (In fact, our recipe recommends bruising the basil with a rolling pin to simulate the effects of a mortar and pestle before adding it to the food processor; for comparison’s sake, we omitted this step.)
That said, a few features separated the good mortars and pestles from the bad. Bigger mortars were better because they allowed us to process more food at a time; we preferred mortars with a capacity of at least 1.5 cups, with our winner boasting a capacity of more than twice that. And the shape of a mortar’s interior was also important. The narrower the mortar was at the bottom, the less surface area there was for food to sit on, limiting our ability to make contact with and pulverize it and requiring more batches and time to complete a single recipe. We preferred mortars with wide, flat interior surfaces that were 3 to 4 inches in diameter, since these let us spread out lots of spices and herbs in a single layer to more easily pound and grind them. We also liked mortars that were relatively deep, with straight (rather than flared) walls. Bowls with flared walls funneled spices and herbs back down onto the pestle as we ground, getting in the way and making it harder to make contact with the food at the bottom that we were trying to grind.
Bigger mortars were also better because they were heavier, sitting more securely on the countertop. Mortars weighing less than 5 pounds were too light; we had to hold them down with our nondominant hand while working to keep them from tipping over and flinging ingredients everywhere.
The weight of the pestle was also important. When using a mortar and pestle, there are two basic kinds of motions: pounding and grinding. In general, you first pound the spices, nuts, or aromatics to break them into smaller pieces. Once you’ve broken the food down a bit, you grind it, pressing it against the walls of the mortar, which turns the spice pieces into a powder or the herbs and aromatics into a paste. Heavier pestles weighing at least a pound did more of the work for us when we pounded food, efficiently pulverizing cinnamon sticks and other whole spices into smithereens. Pestles that were lighter in weight, by contrast, required us to use a lot more force and effort to get the same results—or sometimes failed entirely to achieve them, leaving larger shards of cinnamon bark or pepper. Weight aside, the pestle also had to be fairly long relative to the depth of the mortar so that we could grip them comfortably without our hands hitting the rim of the mortar as we pounded. We liked pestles that were long enough (our winner is 6.5 inches long) to provide extra clearance for our knuckles.
When it came to grinding, the material and texture of the mortars’ interiors were key. Mortars made from granite and marble were more abrasive than mortars made from metal or stoneware, quickly shredding delicate basil into tiny fragments and reducing garlic cloves to paste. The coarser and rougher the interior, the better. Coarser mortars do have to be seasoned prior to use to rid them of any gritty particles that could end up in your food, but this is a small task and well worth the effort. Rough surfaces also held on to whole spices and kept them from slipping around. This meant it was easier to break down those spices, generating perfectly ground pepper and garam masala. By contrast, smooth metal and stoneware mortars provided no traction, so whole spices skittered around their interiors, resisting our efforts to pin them down as we chased them with the pestle. No matter how hard we tried, it was impossible to grind any spices to a fine powder in these smooth mortars; pepper was coarsely ground at best and left whole at worst, and our attempts to make garam masala were unsuccessful, rendering blends with large, unappetizing shards of cinnamon and coriander seeds.
In the end, our former favorite won again. The Frieling Goliath Natural Stone Mortar & Pestle was the biggest model we tested—providing 4 inches of surface area for pounding and grinding—and also the heaviest, sitting securely on the counter. Its heavy, 6.5-inch-long pestle did the best job of blitzing whole spices into small pieces and smashing garlic into paste, and its rough-textured mortar allowed us to grind spices into fine powders and herbs, nuts, and garlic into smooth pesto more quickly than any other model. It was even able to pulverize tough, fibrous lemongrass and ginger when we used it to make Green Curry Paste. And while a previous version of our favorite sometimes came with an oily, odorous coating that needed to be removed before use, this coating has been eliminated in the current design. If you’re looking for a more affordable option, try the ImportFood.com Solid Granite Thai Mortar and Pestle, 6". It’s smaller and lighter than our favorite, so it takes an extra batch or two to get through a recipe and isn’t quite as stable on the countertop. But because its mortar interior is fairly coarse-textured and its pestle is heavy, it still does an excellent job of crushing and grinding foods—and relatively quickly, too.