Test Kitchen tips: The mortar and pestle
Meet the mortar and pestle (the bowl is the mortar, and the pestle is the club-like pounding tool). Simple? Yes. And utterly invaluable in a kitchen.
Tools don't get much more basic than a mortar and pestle. Place some spices, leaves or other ingredients in the mortar and pound away. Not only is a mortar and pestle great for grinding spices, the tools are equally adept at turning out a perfect pesto, velvety aioli, chunky guacamole or any of a number of spice blends and sauces. It might take a little elbow grease to get the job done, but at least these tools won't fail you in the event of a power outage.
One of the oldest tools in the kitchen, it remains one of the best. I'd choose it any day over a spice grinder, or even a blender or food processor. Whereas the electric tools use a blade to grind ingredients, a pestle actually pounds the ingredients with a blunt tip to crush and pulverize them. Pounding the ingredients (whether dried spices, or lemongrass, or basil leaves, etc.) helps to release more of the oils in the ingredients, adding dimension and lending depth and richer flavor to a final dish.
A mortar and pestle can range in price from the relatively cheap (around $15) to the almost prohibitively expensive (in the hundreds of dollars). If you've never owned one before, find a good basic sturdy one (I prefer a smooth stone to a rough lava as they're easier to clean and are better for grinding spices), with a larger bowl (5 to 7 inches) to give you more room to work. They're available in most cooking and gourmet supply stores, and are widely available online.
If you have any kitchen tips or questions you'd like me to explore, leave a comment below or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
-- Noelle Carter
Photo: Mortar and pestle, featured in a story about the home kitchen of chef Suzanne Tracht. Credit: Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times