A mortar is a sturdy bowl, and a pestle is a
club-shaped tool with a rounded bottom. The pestle is used to pound
ingredients in the mortar, reducing them to a thick paste. A mortar and
pestle is the ideal tool for making authentic rustic-style pesto.
If you plan on owning only one mortar and
pestle, buy a large one with a mortar that's at least 5" across and 3"
deep. The larger size offers more versatility for making sauces. Also pay
attention to the pestle. It should be heavy, to reduce the effort needed
to pound ingredients properly. It should also be comfortable (hold it in
your hand to test that it fits well) and should have a wide base for good
leverage and coverage.
When you are crushing several ingredients,
pound the hardest ingredients first, followed by the softer ingredients.
For instance, crush nuts first, and then add herbs and cheese and pound to
blend. To make mashing easier, add a bit of salt. It will help draw
moisture from the ingredients, making them easier to mash.
Mortar and pestle can be substituted with a
electric propeller-blade coffee grinder, which works well for finely
grinding seeds and spices. But first, clean out the coffee grinds and
odors by partially filling the grinder with uncooked rice and 1/2 teaspoon
baking soda. Grind this mixture until pulverized, then use a pastry brush
or clean tooth-brush to remove particles. If you don't have a coffee
grinder, you can make a homemade mortar and pestle, using a wooden bowl as
the mortar and a round, fist-size rock wrapped in plastic wrap as the
pestle. When pulverizing something strong-flavored, such a cumin seeds or
garlic, double-line the bowl with plastic wrap so that the bowl does not
absorb the odors.