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The Different Types of Mortar & Pestles and Their Effectiveness

Updated April 17, 2017

A mortar and pestle set is a grinding tool used primarily for preparing spices and medicine. The pestle is a rounded baton used to crush ingredients and the mortar is the bowl in which ingredients are ground. Most mortar and pestle sets are similar in structure, but the materials used to make them vary greatly. So long as it fits in the mortar, just about anything can be crushed, mixed and ground with a mortar and pestle.

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Porous Mortar and Pestle sets

Mortar and pestle sets made from porous materials like basalt (volcanic rock), granite, or wood will absorb flavour and require a great deal of maintenance. The hardness and rough surfaces of basalt and granite provide ideal grinding surfaces. Sets made of these materials are ideal for creating pastes, such as curry or salsa, because the rock will not degrade when crushing ingredients with high moisture content; however, due to the porosity of these rocks, ingredients, flavour and aroma can easily become trapped in the pores. As a result, they need to be washed and scrubbed thoroughly with hot, non-soapy water after each use and need to be seasoned prior to each use. Porous mortar and pestle sets are seasoned by grinding a small bit of white rice to a fine powder, discarding the greyish substance and repeating until the powder is completely white. Unlike rock, wood is very smooth which is great for grinding seeds, spices and dried ingredients, but will splinter and absorb flavour if anything with moisture is crushed in it, thus limiting its functionality.

Non-Porous Mortar and Pestle Sets

Nonporous mortar and pestle sets are made from materials that are completely smooth and repel absorption like marble, vitrified ceramic, and porcelain. Sets made out these materials are favourites in the culinary world because they are easy to clean and maintain. These materials are all very hard which provides an excellent grinding surface and naturally inhibit ingredients such as garlic or chilli peppers from contaminating the surface with their potent flavours and odours. This means that after a quick scrub with water the mortar and pesle set is ready for its next use without the need to season the surface. Furthermore, because these surfaces are moisture resistant they are perfect for grinding pastes, sauces and moisture heavy ingredients. The only drawback of porcelain and ceramic is, depending on the density of the mortar, they could crack if grinding a particularly hard ingredient with heavy pounding.

Function and Use

Mortar and pestle sets are typically used for culinary purposes to mix spices, pastes and salsas and in pharmaceuticals to mix ingredients to make medicine. However, most people use mortar and pestle sets for culinary purposes because they offer complete control over the consistency or coarseness of the ingredients being crushed and mixed. According to "Fantes.com," the slow, low friction grinding that happens in a mortar and pestle set preserves the ingredients aromas and flavours, unlike when they are ground in a high friction machine like a food processor or electric blender. The major difference between nonporous and porous mortar and pestle sets as far as function and use are concerned is mostly maintenance. E xtremely hard surfaces of basalt, granite and marble will resist hard pounding better than ceramic, porcelain and wood.

Traditional Purposes

Traditionally mortar and pestle sets were used much like they are today for grinding medicines as well as food. Michael J. Brody, curator of the Marvin Samson Center for the History of Pharmacy at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, writes that the mortar and pestle hold "a place of honour as the indispensable, and therefore most characteristic, tools of [pharmacy]." Furthermore, Brody points out that historical uses are well documented in early writing dating as far back as 1550 B.C.E. in ancient Egyptian papyrus. In addition, Brody claims that mortar and pestle sets are found in ancient, recent, and current societies with unchanged uses and purposes.

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About the Author

Sebastian Malysa

Based in Victoria, British Columbia, Sebastian Malysa began his writing career in 2010. His work focuses on the general arts and appears on Answerbag and eHow. He has won a number of academic awards, most notably the CTV Award for best proposed documentary film. He holds a Master of Arts in contemporary disability theater from the University of Victoria.

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