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Pesto with Mortar and Pestle ... who knew?!

When I make pesto, I usually borrow a food processor and blend away.

Last night I used manual labor -- lots and lots of manual labor -- to make pesto.

The difference was stunning.

It was like the difference between gourmet whole grain mustard and French's.

Nothing wrong with French's mustard, but damn, when you've partaken of pure pesto ecstasy, it's going to be hard to go back.

If you (1) like pesto (2) have never used a mortar and pestle to make pesto and (3) you want forearms like Popeye, then you owe yourself the experience.

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  1. Hey Ips..., I think the words pesto and pestle have the same latin root so it makes sense that it'd be so transcendent. A m&p is one of the (very) few kitchen gadgets I DON'T have. Might have to rethink that... adam

    1. If you like coffee, try grinding your coffee bean with a M & P.

      1. How was the texture? I find pesto made with the m & p method to be almost buttery and silky; much finer in both texture and quality than FP made pesto. Of course that texture depends on how long your arm holds out.

        2 Replies
        1. re: bushwickgirl

          I'm not sure the texture was all that different (although there was some difference) between m/p and f/p, but the taste was differently -- quite significant.

          The hand-made m/p pesto had clarity and pronounced definition in flavor (as well as texture) compared to the f/p variety -- which by comparison tasted rather monotonous.

          1. re: bushwickgirl

            I usually make my pesto in a Vita-Mix blender, and it also comes out very silky. I have a mortar and pestle but never have I used it for pesto. Years ago, I knew an Italian guy who would only make pesto with the tiniest leaves of the plant, and he would toss the rest away. Now that pesto was definitely a different taste to me.

          2. Have been making pesto in a large porcelain M&P for years, and I have a very good food processor. As you say there is a huge difference in the quality. Now wanting to source a large molcajete to make chile sauce.........

            1. I started with mortar and pestle and then moved toward to food processor because I just cannot keep up with all the manual work. It is slow and low output.

              Sure, hand washing laundary can be cleaner than machine washing, but that is only true if you are not tired.

              1. I don't do it that way often, but I agree with you totally. Did you ever see this super-cool Chow video about the pesto at Farina?


                1 Reply
                1. re: dmd_kc

                  No, but thanks for pointing it out.

                2. adamshoe is right - true classic Italian pesto is actually supposed to be made with a mortar & pestle - the word "pesto" comes from the Italian for "pounded." i *adore* pesto made the traditional way because the flavor is so clean - the version you get in the food processor is definitely muddy in comparison...but it's certainly much less labor-intensive.

                  1. Now, about the type of basil used, there are many cultivars, although I think of Genovese or sweet as "the" basil to use for pesto. Anyone use any other varieties, either with the m & p or FP?

                    I checked the video, very cool, but I'm still not clear on the need for soaking the leaves, aside from washing the basil. Did I miss the something about oxidation?

                    7 Replies
                    1. re: bushwickgirl

                      It's a terrific little video. I love that guy (I wonder where the restaurant is). What he said about soaking the basil was to remove some of the chlorophyl since it apparently overwhelms the delicacy of the pesto. I used to get arugala on LI that would completely turn the water green when you washed it, so I think I get the part about the chlorophyl, though I have never noticed the green water effect with basil. I thought the point he made about a mild oil was interesting, and also the Italian pignoli, which are somewhat difficult to find. Obviously the Genovese is the basil most associated with pesto, but not being able to get it never stops me from making pesto!

                      1. re: roxlet

                        Thanks, I had some trouble understanding him. I should have just turned my speakers up and watched it again. I've never seen the basil washing water turn green, either. I've always avoided washing or soaking it, as basil turns black pretty quickly, but that was for storage and other uses, anyway.

                        Yes, interesting point about the oil. Will try a lighter oil next time.

                        1. re: roxlet

                          I saw on Check Please, Bay Area, a report (video) of Farina restaurant in San Francisco where the chef said he only uses a mortar and pestle for making the pesto AND he said he soaks the basil in water.

                          (Farina is supposed to have delicious food but small portions/high prices.)

                        2. re: bushwickgirl

                          he made a comment about removing some of the chlorophyll because of oxidation, but from a chemical perspective it doesn't make sense - if you want to remove chlorophyll, a soak in water isn't going to do it. and i'm not sure why he thinks chlorophyll will lead to oxidation...it was all very confused. (*theoretically* if you were to cut down the level of chlorophyll you'd reduce the grassiness of the flavor.)

                          1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                            I used to use a recipe that called for blanching the basil and it actually worked extremely well.

                            I prefer the mortar and pestle pesto too - the theory is the same as with garlic that it crushes rather than cutting the foods being ground, releasing the flavor, oils, etc better and creating a better texture. Some people think the flavors are less harsh if not cut, too.. However, for bulk pesto making , the blender or processor is the way we go.

                            1. re: jen kalb

                              <actually worked extremely well.>

                              Worked extremely well in what respect?

                              <if you want to remove chlorophyll, a soak in water isn't going to do it >

                              Ghg, maybe that's why I was confused by the chlorophyll-oxidation connection, It made no sense to me. I immediately thought I just didn't hear it correctly.

                              1. re: jen kalb

                                I mean ithe blanching resulted in very good pesto.

                                Cant remember whether this method came from Ed Giobbi or Marcella Hazan. Maybe it helps break down the cell membranes, like the mortar and pestle do. I havent done it recently, since it adds complexity to the process.

                                I have no idea what the statement about removing chlorophyll means.

                          2. It also somehow makes the raw garlic less harsh, but just as garlicky. I only use mortar-and-pestled garlic for salad dressing and other raw uses.

                            1. It's true, the pesto has a different flavor. It is also important to use the wooden pestle in a marble mortar.
                              In addition to the classic Pesto Genovese (with basil) in Italy we have many other versions, such as the Sicilian Pesto with tomatoes, pine nuts and walnuts, like this:


                              1. I would always joke that Pesto was named after Mrs. Doc.
                                I ordered it for you sweetheart. I have never made it that way, but that is the origin of the name.

                                1. I went to the Asian Grocery store today, and brought home an enormous 17# ( I weighed it)solid granite mortar and pestle.
                                  It is absolutely awesome!
                                  It turned the garlic into a perfect paste, pine nuts next, basil leaves, a sprinkle of salt, and some black pepper, it was the most perfect creamy pesto in less than 3 minutes- I did not even have to add any olive oil, it absolutely liberated all the oil from the pine nuts.
                                  I'm basically a 130# weakling, and this thing just works so well. I saw a youtube video w a woman making pesto by hand w the marble mortar and wood pestle. She had to work very hard, and it took awhile.
                                  I'm going to try hummus tomorrow- it is such a pain in the blender, and maybe a crushed tomato salsa, definitely guacamole, I'm sure the serranos will mash up just fine. Curry pastes will be a snap, crushing spices, mashing shallot for fabulous quick vinaigrettes,, no PIA assembly/ diassembly/ sharp parts/ break downs at a crucial time/ works even without electricity...
                                  I would highly recommend a solid granite mortar and pestle. The bigger and heavier, the better.

                                  2 Replies
                                    1. re: NMCook

                                      How do you wash it? Isn't it very heavy to lug into the sink?

                                    2. Mortar and pestle tip: Pounding is rarely efficient. Instead, press down with the pestle and make small circles.

                                      Pesto specific tip: Don't pour the oil in the mortar. It will splash everywhere.

                                      1. Not as "elegant" but I make *pounded* basil pesto with a big zip lock bag and a hammer! It does taste much better than the food processor and I make too much pesto to use a mortar and pestle. I sit outside in the summer and whack away at the bag while sipping a drink...

                                        1. I have never actually thought about making pesto in a food processor. My huge hefty granite M&P is used in my kitchen several times a week.

                                          Having been to the town where Genovese pesto is thought to have originated in the Cinque Terre several times I practically feel sacreligious for saying this but there are tons of other combinations using arugula, spinach, mint, various toasted nuts, different cheeses, etc. As I purchase spices whole whenever possible I use my M&P for crushing them, making aioli, all kinds of sauces. Other than my KA mixer it is the most-used thing in my kitchen. I agree with those who say there is no comparison to using a FP for many things. Not only that, the M&P is just plain fun to use! It's so rustic and down to earth.