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Mortar and Pestle: Wood, ceramic, or cast iron?

What's best?

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  1. Don't know what's best but mine is large, marble, and with a wooden handled pestle. It's worked well for many years grinding spices, herbs, and beans.

    1. I use a granite one (both mortar & pestle) from Thailand. Works for me and was not expensive.

      1. Ah yes, marble and granite as well. I guess I should ask what's worst too? I'm mainly worried about the potential for cracking or shards coming off. I don't know if this happens with any of the materials, but I figure after some wear & tear it's possible.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Googs

          I have my mother's 30+ year old marble set--no chips or cracks. Just make sure it does NOT have a polished interiour. The pestle is rougher on the bottom end, finer on the top end (although I rarely use the top part). Neither are highly polished, even on the outside--too shiny and your fingers will slip. The base is rough also, and when not using on a wooden counter top, it's best to have a dishcloth underneath to prevent scratching of the surface.

          Washing up is easy--rinse in the sink with a mild soap, and allow to air dry. I haven't had a problem with transference of flavours.

        2. What's Best? I'd say it's a matter of personal preference. I've used wooden models and don't like them. IMO, they're too porous and the flavors they hold on to tend to transfer from one herb/spice to another. I don't want the flavor of crushed red pepper blended with my cinnamon.
          I've used both marble and granite. Marble, in my experience, is too close to wood in its porosity. Of the three materials discussed thus far, I prefer granite and that's what I'm currently using. That said, as soon as I can afford it, I'm giving my granite mortar and pestle to a good cause and moving to a cast iron model.

          8 Replies
          1. re: todao

            Now you're a man who knows his M's & P's. May I ask why you prefer cast iron to granite?

            1. re: todao

              We have granite, too, and it's held up for years. No chipping or other problems.

              I don't see the point of wood- too soft and porous. Ceramic is (or was) traditional in pharmacies, so I would think that would speak to it's cleanability.

              1. re: sfumato

                Ugh, take out my apostrophe in "it's"! WTF was I thinking?


                1. re: sfumato

                  It has, abbreviated to it's, *should* have an apostrophe. What were you thinking? :-)

                2. re: sfumato

                  you are right to remove the apostrophe. "it's" is only a contraction of "it is" or "it has."

                  >>>> from http://www.stormloader.com/garyes/its...
                  A simple test

                  If you can replace it[']s in your sentence with it is or it has, then your word is it's; otherwise, your word is its.

                  Another test

                  Its is the neuter version of his and her. Try plugging her into your sentence where you think its belongs. If the sentence still works grammatically (if not logically) then your word is indeed its.<<<<<<

                  1. re: alkapal

                    I definitely know how to use it (love diagramming sentences and linguistics and all that nonsense)... I think it was just an instance of fingers moving faster than my brain! Which is odd, because that usually results in the normal mistypes (letter transposed, etc), rather than actual grammatical errors.

                    1. re: sfumato

                      my link was to clarify and serve as a reminder for all of us hounds, not directed at you. after all, you cared enough to correct your post.

                      1. re: alkapal

                        Hah! Thanks. No worries. I reread that and was so irritated with myself (I'm one of those sticklers for to vs. too, its vs. it's, etc. Perhaps it was a wine-heavy night when I posted that! ;)

              2. I've had a terracotta mortar with a wooden pestle from Henry Watson Pottery for years. I use it often and I've never had a problem with it. The wooden pestle is very dense, as is the terracotta, so neither hold odor.


                1. I have a very large, heavy granite mortar and pestle that I really, really like. It's very stable with a large interior bowl, and the hefty pestle works great. I found mine at Marshall's a few years back for $15.

                  I also have a ceramic mortar and pestle with ridges but I don't like this one nearly as much and don't use it very often.

                  1. googs, i have granite, marble and a small porcelain one (that i use for spices that won't grind in my spice grinder). the marble one i use the least -- maybe 'cause it is hard to hold -- and often feels too "slick" inside.....so the spices skitter around more than in the granite one. i guess granite is a bit more porous?

                    the thai granite one is ridgy on the outside, which helps me to hold it.

                    the thing most important to me is to get one large and deep enough.....more than you *think* you'll need. too small, shallow = flying, scattering spices.....

                    i've never had a chip or shard, and i've really whacked 'em -- at least the granite and marble.

                    1. Have a set of three ceramic ones made for a laboratory by a company in Colorado. At that time they were the superior product for the genre. small 5", medium 10", and heavy big one used for display is 16" wide and 13" high. Treat them with care and they still for me are perfect.

                      1. Whats best depends on what your doing with it.

                        I have three.

                        One set is solid granite, weighs in at close to 15 pounds, for pounding Thai style curry paste, for any thing that requires the use of force it's the best. Put a silicone mat under it and pound as hard as you like.

                        The second is ceramic, 5” across the top and is used for nearly everything that doesn't require heft and solidity.

                        Lastly I have a small 3” ceramic that is used for saffron, and saffron alone.

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: Demented

                          You have a special one for saffron? May I ask why? Really curious about that.

                          1. re: Googs

                            Don't know, it's just worked out that way.

                            I only had the heavy granite mortar and got a smaller one for working with saffron, it was a bit small for a lot of what I crush so I got a bigger ceramic mortar, over time saffron is the only thing it gets used for.

                        2. I use porcelain pharmaceutical mortars and pestles. They have a "bisque" interior for the mortar and the end on the pestle that gives "tooth" for the things I'm processing.

                          I also like traditional Mexican molcajetes made from rough textured pitted stone. They are great for grinding and pulverizing foods in large amounts. Don't know what happened to mine. Time to buy another!

                          7 Replies
                          1. re: Caroline1

                            I have a molcajetes too - and I've never used it. :( I think I'm going to dig it out of the basement, season it properly, and give it a road test.

                            Those porcelain pharmaceutical mortars sound very nice.

                            1. re: Caroline1

                              I agree with Caroline about the pharmaceutical M & Ps. They do the best job on herbs and spices, as well as small amounts of garlic, etc.
                              A highly desirable feature is that they absorb nothing. You can even put them into the dishwasher to remove any vestige of whatever you have last pulverized. No carryover scents or flavors.
                              Very reasonably priced as well so you can get several sizes if you desire.

                              1. re: MakingSense

                                Where does one buy pharmaceutical mortar & pestles?

                                1. re: razkolnikov

                                  Here's an inexpensive one from a "science fair" company that would be perfectly fine for kitchen use. Or try other places in the internet.
                                  They can get really expensive if you get very high quality ones suitable for use at NIH or the Centers for Disease Control - obviously - but that shouldn't be necessary for some herbs and garlic in your kitchen.
                                  You're not curing malaria, are you? (The world should be so fortunate.
                                  )Many labs use M & Ps made of agate which is the top of the line for scientific purity.

                                  You can also pay 3X this much at a fancy kitchen shop for a porcelain one or a set made of another material.
                                  A good scientific grade one should do the trick. I've been happy with mine for years. The other ones all went out to charity or garage sales years ago.

                                  1. re: MakingSense

                                    Thanks. I found some of those very expensive ones on a first google, and that didn't look right for a kitchen item. Glad to see there are more reasonable options out there. And the only way my cooking "cures" malaria is by burning food -- the smoke drives away the mosquitos.

                              2. re: Caroline1

                                I'm going to look into a pharmaceutical grade mortar & pestle. It sounds like the perfect option. Thanks so much everyone.

                                1. re: Googs

                                  Do a Google search and check out prices. Sometimes certain upscale grocery stores carry them. But make yourself familiar with prices via the web. I've seen the exact same mortars and pestles as I have for four times the price I paid. As the Caesars used to say, "Caveat emptor!" '-)

                              3. There really isn't a "best," since they're appropriate for different purposes. Wood ones are for soft and wet pastes like pesto. You can't crush fenugreek at all in a wood pestle, for example. It just dents the sides of the bowl and the pestle.

                                I use a stone one (granite in both pieces) for hard spices and seeds. It has a rough-textured area at the bottom of the well, and the sides are smoother as they go up. It was maybe $8 at my Asian market and has lasted me over a decade without any maintenance.

                                I've never used a cast iron one, but I'm sure the performance would be similar to stone. Those are mostly Central- and South-American in origin, right?

                                1. The previous owners of my house left behind a plastic one. Made a reasonable flower pot.

                                  More sensibly .... don't go for one that is too big. They get heavy. If you are grinding mainly seeds then pick one where the curvature of the mortar is close to that of the pestle.

                                  Granite can go in the dishwasher but it is worth sealing it first. In reply to someone earlier, marble is more porous than granite.

                                  A rough base will stop it sliding but you need to protect your counters.

                                  And as someone else said - make sure it is rough. Those little coriander seeds can make a mad dash for freedom.

                                  Most Chinese supermarkets sell them fairly cheaply.

                                  1. I have porcelain one, also from a chemical supply company. Works great.

                                    it's very hard so it grinds hard stuff and cleans up well.

                                    Like this: