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Best material for mortar and pestle?

Experienced dismal failure using a wooden mortar and pestle to grind fennel seeds, rosemary, garlic etc. into a paste for dry rub. Fennel seeds in particular would not yield. What's the best material/brand for this handsome, Slow Foodish kitchen tool?

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  1. In my experience stone is the best material.

    1. Stone as well... The wood has too much 'give'. The marble too smooth so things go flying everywhere (Don't ever try to grind coriander or any round spice in a marble mortar!!). I adore my Molcajete.

      Sadly, a good Molcajete is hard to find these days. They are made with lava rock, which has huge pits and breaks down too easy. Even the ones at Crate and Barrel which look promising on their website had big pits... Bad for grinding, bad for sanitation!! :P

      I got mine at a Mexican Supermarket. It was the only one with a smooth solid surface and it seasoned beautifuly. I get no stone or grit at all! The thing is, it's not pretty. It's a big bowl of rock, but for what it does, I'll take it...


      1. I have 3: the largest Thai granite mortar and pestle that I could find is my main workhorse for not only Thai preps but a lot of other cusines as well. This one is indispensible. Very smooth and non-porous interior. I just picked up a large Lao clay mortar and wooden pestle for Som Tum and I'm not sure what else. I have had a small white porcelain lab m & p for years that I use for very small quantities of spices etc.

        3 Replies
        1. re: sel

          Where did you find the one you use the most..the granite one???

          1. re: ruffhouse

            They are available at all Thai markets and most Chinese markets. I think I got mine at the linked place below. I have seen them at non-Asian stores and web sites on occasion but always at inflated prices!

            Bangkok Market Retail
            4757 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, CA

          2. re: sel

            I have a molcajete and think I'd rather have one of these huge Thai granite jobs.. especially a rather deep one. In the molcajete my liquids keep becoming part of stone instead of part of my dinner. It's still great for hard, dry items but nonporous is definitely the way I'd go.

          3. I picked up an amazing one - also amazing cheap and amazingly heavy - in our local Little India.

            If you have any Indian stores near you, I would check there.
            Stone / Granite all the way.

            1. I have a marble one with ridges inside that I bought at Bridge Kitchenware (they have a website) - I love it, and far better than the Dominican wood one that my husband held onto for years.

              1. Gotta love the lava rock in a molcajete. Pulverizes stuff in no time flat.

                Get one next time you're in New Mexico, or buy from an internet store there.

                You just have to make sure that you season it by grinding rice first, so that "grit" problem is minimized.

                2 Replies
                1. re: bogie

                  I purchased my molcajete at the Sante Fe School of Cooking - 800.982.4688.

                    1. re: inane

                      Yay! Pulse it, baby! I'll never grind in my mortar again. Big chunks, little chunks, whatever, in secs with no mess.

                    2. I adore my Thai granite mortar and pestle. I have the 8" and have moved the rest of my collection of grinding tools to the back of the closet.

                      I picked mine up at a Sur La Table store. They let me see it before I bought it which reassured me about the quality and coloration of the piece of granite.

                      1. I use a Coors brand (not the brewer) lab M & P just like the one used in high school labs everywhere. It is a hard porcelain material, hard and slick on the outside, a rough matte finish inside. I've seen them on e-Bay before selling cheap.

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: beertje49

                          Coors makes more money off of their ceramics than they do beer. All of the tiles in the brewery were made by Coors, and they do a lot of electronics ceramic items too. I used to service a bottle labeler that had ceramic glue rolls made by Coors. Yep, they make more then beer.

                          1. re: BIGGUNDOCTOR

                            CoorsTek (Ceramics) - $ 539.7 million
                            Coors Brewing (Beer) - $5 billion

                        2. I love my ceramic mason & cash mortar and pestle. Grinds spices like nobody's business. My dad has a granite molcajete, but it's harded to clean and too heavy for me to lift.

                          4 Replies
                          1. re: Notorious EMDB

                            I'll second the ceramic Mason & Cash. It's not delicate and has just a tad of "roughness" which makes grinding or smashing easier.

                            1. re: L nrs

                              Ive been using a large heavy brass mortar and pestle for 25 years and it works fine - goes through the dishwasher and all.
                              Spose if I bought one today I would look at one of the SE Asian granite models, but I have no complaints about this one.

                              1. re: jen kalb

                                thats what indians use!

                                is yours indian? we call the pestle 'batta' (soft t).

                                1. re: jen kalb

                                  I second the brass mortar as I found at the Armenian market. I find it's the most durable and versatile of them all.

                            2. I lugged a big marble one home from Thailand. No substitue for stone. Other posters mentioned coffee grinders for spices, and that's fine for dry spices, but you need a mortal for garlic, ginger, galangal, etc.

                              1. I bought mine while living in Cambodia. A Khmer cook told me the secret to buying a good set. One tool must be wood, the other stone. Wood on wood doesn't give enough traction, and stone on stone will give you grit. I've had the same set for 10 yrs and the results are awesome, especially when making Thai pastes or Indian spice mixtures from scratch. (I don't even own a food processor.)

                                1. A Japanese suribachi is a fun tool. The grooved ceramic ridges somewhat imitate the abrasive surface of the mexican lava rock molcajete.

                                  Pictured and described here:

                                  To give yeppers to some of the previously mentioned:

                                  1) For fine grinding/powdering of dry things: A cheap ($15) grinder. Braun KSM2. I keep four of them on a CPU power strip: A) coffee only; B) dried chilis or peppercorns only; C) other spices and dry herbs; D) non-aromatic grains, flax seeds, and dried shiitake. The power strip allows for "assured shutoff" for carefree cleaning with a scrap of paper towel.

                                  2) For coarse grinding/crushing of dry seeds: the high school lab ceramic M & P. Holding in palm gives nice 2-handed-energy results. Also good for grinding sea salt down to a fine powder for "popcorn salt".

                                  3) For pulverized wet pastes: the Thai marble M & P.

                                  4) For coarse wet pastes: the Japanese suribachi.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: FoodFuser

                                    Wow, four on a power strip? I'm impressed. That's a lot of spice grinding.

                                  2. I have a nice cast iron one, that has to be cleaned like any cast iron (no soap). It's tough and has texture and can take a real bashing.

                                    1. I replaced my wooden one for a marble one from Made from Marble - cost £35 but well worth it: http://www.madefrommarble.com/product...
                                      Its a flat bottom one and really heavy so it means the products don't slip and slide when you grind.

                                      1. I have a cast iron one that works very good, as well as an old hand cranked Jupiter (Germany) spice grinder that looks like a small meat grinder. The front has an adjustable cone to set size.

                                        Not all M&P's are the same. My Dad showed me how a properly made one should work. You palm the pestle , push down, and roll it around the outer edge of the mortar. As you do this it should rotate in your palm. This action will grind items fast. You shouldn't have to pound items in the bottom to make them smaller.

                                        My M&P is quite a bit deeper than wide

                                        1. I think that the shape of the bowl is as important as the material. The most important thing is that the bowl has some degree of texture to provide grip to whatever you're trying to grind in there. I made the mistake of being lured into buying a stainless steel M&P once and it was totally useless because it was too smooth inside. It went into the donate box after one use.

                                          I have three that I use. My favorite is marble and the bowl is narrow and deep. The finish is good and grippy and ever so slightly horizontally ridged. It works well for pounding garlic and grinding anything. If I ever find a big, big one with the same nice deep bowl and proportions I'm going to buy it, because my only complaint is that this one is sometimes too small for the quantities I need to do. My second is lab porcelain and I use it much less. The bowl is wide and fairly shallow. It's not quite as good, grip-wise as the marble and the bowl shape does not work as well for me because there's too much room for stuff to just get pushed around and fly out and over the sides. I also have a tiny lab porcelain one that works great for just a little bit of something--again because the bowl is proportionately deep. Neither of the porcelain ones ever get back completely white inside which I don't care about but would probably bug some folks.

                                          1. The Thai stone mortar and pestle does a great job; I no longer fear or avoid pounding/grinding things into pastes.

                                            The ease of use is a combination of the weight of the material, which makes it possible to let the pestle do a lot of the work while rotating it, and the surface -- smooth but subtly textured. Cleans up remarkably well; I just use water and baking soda.

                                            1 Reply
                                            1. re: ellabee

                                              Thai granite mortars and pestles are hard to beat. Shipping seems to have gone up enough to make them a little pricier then the last time I bought one but, if I need to another I would go with a Thai granite model without hesitation.