With all of our advanced technologies, do we really need an old-fashioned kitchen tool like a mortar-and-pestle? Yes. Electric spice grinders, food processors, and blenders all serve useful purposes, but the humble and low-tech mortar-and-pestle offers extra benefits to the cook.
Traditionally, the mortar-and-pestle is used in Italian food for making pesto, Thai food for making curry pastes, and Indian food for grinding spices. Hand-grinding may seem slow and awkward, but basil pesto with garlic and pine nuts ground in a mortar-and-pestle has a fresher flavor and better texture than the ultra-smooth puree that a food processor produces.
I just learned a wonderful trick from cookbook author Naam Pruitt, who teaches our Thai cooking classes: use a mortar-and-pestle to grind nuts. I used to hand-chop nuts with a chef’s knife and a cutting board and the nuts would fly all over the kitchen. Nuts chopped by machine are much too fine and the nuts release too much oil, which produces a nut butter rather than chopped nuts.
Toast the nuts, then place in the mortar-and-pestle, and pound the nuts until you reach the desired texture — coarser or finer. The larger pieces of nuts naturally fall to the center of the mortar, which allows for the nuts to be evenly chopped by the pestle. Nuts are easier to toast whole, not chopped; to toast nuts, spread on a rimmed sheet pan and bake at 350 degrees for 5 minutes.
One other benefit of mortar-and-pestles: they are beautiful!