The mortar and pestle are ancient tools that no modern kitchen should be without. They’re handy for everything from cracking peppercorns and crushing tender herbs to making pesto and guacamole. Yet, these days, electric spice grinders and food processors often take their place, and that’s a pity, because after testing an assortment of mortars and pestles, we’re convinced that a good set can perform as well—or even better—at many tasks.
Of the 18 mortars and pestles we tested, many models frustrated us or proved to be of limited use, but a few workhorses were delightfully versatile and excelled at every task we threw at them, including crushing garlic, spices, and nuts.
What to look for:
In performing our tests, we discovered that material, shape, and size are the key characteristics to look at when shopping for a mortar and pestle.
The ideal material for a mortar and pestle is something hefty and very hard. It shouldn’t be so rough as to be porous or difficult to clean, nor should it be so smooth as to be slippery. The Thai granite model above embodied our ideal: Literally rock hard, its matte surface created friction for grinding but was smooth enough to wipe clean easily, and its heft made crushing a breeze. Several other stone models were also very effective. However, an Italian marble mortar paired with a light, relatively soft wood pestle failed to impress because the pestle required us to work harder to achieve good results, and it couldn’t grind cumin seed.
In fact, all the wood mortars and pestles we tried seemed too light and soft to be effective at all the tasks we wanted them to do. Other materials, too, had shortcomings: With porcelain, breaking was a concern (one model we tested broke on the first use). And slick surfaces like stainless steel let ingredients slip around too much.
The best mortars have a deeply rounded shape that keeps ingredients from jumping or spilling out. Wider, shallow shapes don’t contain ingredients as well. A stable base is also important. When it comes to pestles, many are too narrow and rounded, so ingredients readily pop out from under them. A broader, more gently rounded base works far better.
As for size, think big rather than small. If you’re looking to buy just a single mortar and pestle, a capacious mortar can mash small quantities just as well as large. But a too-small mortar is, ultimately, of limited use and lets ingredients pop out (the low-profile model at far right, however, innovatively solves this problem).
Thai granite mortar and pestle
$30.95 at ImportFood.com
7-inch diameter; 2-cup capacity
This solid, hand-carved mortar and pestle (pictured above) excels at the full range of tasks, from mashing delicate herbs to grinding stubborn peppercorns. The heavy, broad-based pestle needs to do little more than fall on ingredients to crush them—very little elbow grease required. And the bowl’s deeply sloped shape and matte texture keep ingredients in the center, so there’s no need to chase them around with the pestle. At 12 pounds, this mortar won’t scoot around during use, but we suggest putting a cloth beneath it to protect your counter. Also comes in 6-, 8-, and 9-inch sizes.
Other good choices (listed in order of capacity)
Mexican molcajete y tejolote poblano
$36.95 at GourmetSleuth.com
7-1/2- to 8-inch diameter; 3-cup capacity
Traditionally for making salsa, mole, and guacamole, good molcajetes (mortars) and tejolotes (pestles) are made from basalt (volcanic rock). Molcajetes vary widely in quality—some aren’t even pure basalt—so purchase with care. Of the two we tried, we prefer this one’s smoother surface and deeper, more rounded bowl. The cleaning brush that was included helps get the textured surface clean. We recommend putting a towel underneath for stability and to protect your counter.
Cast-iron mortar and pestle by Typhoon
$30 at Typhoonus.com
6-inch diameter; 2-cup capacity
Its hard surface, the pestle’s heft, and the bowl’s depth give this model many of the advantages of the Thai granite model. The pour spout is a nice feature. But it has weaknesses, too: You need to hold the mortar steady when pressing or pounding the pestle any way but straight down. Also, the cast iron will react with acidic ingredients, and to avoid rust, it needs to be washed and dried promptly after use and regularly seasoned with oil.
Pedestal-style mortar and pestle by Fox Run
$14.95 at Lehmans.com
4-inch diameter; 1/3-cup capacity
This is a common style, but we like this particular model because the pestle is wider than the others we tried. If you’re strictly looking for a small model for little jobs, this is an inexpensive, effective option. Though small, the deep bowl prevents most pop-outs, but jumpy ingredients like peppercorns need to be crushed with caution.
Low-profile mortar and pestle
$16.95 at LeeValley.com
This unusual mortar and pestle is nice for crushing small amounts of hard whole spices or garlic. The pestle fits snugly into the contour of the mortar, so you don’t have to chase spices around inside—or outside—the mortar. It can handle no more than a couple of teaspoons or so of spices or a clove of garlic, and no liquids.
How we tested:
We tried 18 mortars and pestles made from ceramic, porcelain, different kinds of stone, and wood. They ranged in size, capacity, and shape. To assess them, we mashed cloves of garlic, slices of ginger, peppercorns, cumin seed, cilantro, and pine nuts, and made a curry paste.