How did I ever manage without one?
A mortar and pestle is used to crush, grind, and mix solid substances. The pestle is the heavy pounding tool used for crushing and grinding. The mortar is a bowl, typically made of hard wood, ceramic or stone. The materials they are made from must be hard enough to crush the substance rather than be worn away by it. They cannot be too brittle either, or they will break during the pounding and grinding. The material should also be cohesive, so that small bits of the mortar or pestle do not get mixed in with the ingredients. Smooth and non-porous materials like , wood, marble or stone are chosen that will not absorb or trap the substances being ground.
Pestles and Mortars were initially used in the preparation of drugs, reflecting the early use of the mortar and pestle as a pharmacist’s or RX apothecary’s symbol. The Papyrus Ebers, an Egyptian medical document, contains the first documented record of the mortar and pestle from 1550 BC. The mortar and pestle were used in Egypt as both medical and culinary tools. Both parts continued to be made of bronze, but sometimes they were made of wood or stone.
The first step in the process is selecting your own personal mortar and pestle. They are available in many sizes and different materials. Choose a mortar made of a hard material such as granite, since you will be putting a relatively large amount of force on it; however, the oldest mortars are made of clay with a sugar palm wood pestle. These are now used primarily for Som Tom, the fiery green papaya salad from Northeast Thailand.
Beware of some Latin American versions. They look good but are often composed of lava rock; and although the roughness of this stone is ideal for grinding, the brittle nature of the lava rock can result in gritty paste! The mortar bowl should be deep and wide enough to fit all of the ingredients required in the bottom third.
They average from about five to seven inches in diameter and can weigh a whopping 12 to 16 pounds. Too small and the ingredients fly all over the place, but a little larger is okay.
Similar to a wok, the design allows for small amounts of paste to be created in a larger mortar. A stone mortar and pestle is like a well-seasoned cast iron pan. Water is fine yet abrasive alkaline soaps are not.