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Your experience with grinding spices in a mortar and pestle?

I've been having trouble grinding things like fennel seeds, star anise, coriander, and whole cloves in my grandma's mortar but I just blame it on it being too small and smooth to be effective without everything flying out. I was thinking of buying my own bigger mortar and pestle and was deciding between a marble mortar, a molcajete, or a thai granite one, in hopes that its just my grandma's mortar. If you suggest I dont use one for this purpose, I was thinking of a manual spice mill with a ceramic mechanism (Im looking at the Spice Boy by Oliver Hemming http://www.dreamicons.com/spice-boy-b...
Im actually leaning towards some type of mortar and pestle as i like the versatility as I can use it for pestos, pastes, guacamole, ect. But like i said, im not sure if it would be effective, especially if i wanted to grind things to a powder. I realize many people use the Krups electric coffee grinders for this purpose but honestly, im not too excited about the Krups as I know when it comes to pepper mills, mechanical ones are superior so Im thinking it may be the same for spice grinders. Plus, I dont drink coffee.

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  1. I've always used a mortar and pestle for spice grinding.

    1. i got a small one for last xmas (maybe holds a cup or two) and it is great...i used it to bash up fresh thyme and salt

      1. You don't have to be a coffee drinker to use the Krups (or anyone else's) electric coffee grinder. It's OK to purchase one for the exclusive purpose of grinding spices. I used a mortar and pestle for some time and, except for the exercise opportunity it provided, found no true benefit. I have two Krups coffee grinders. each of which cost under $20. I use one for spices that I might select for baking (cinnamon, Anise, etc.) and the other for more savory spices (e.g Cumin). I have a special grinder that I use exclusively for nutmeg. The mortar and pestle are cute kitchen decorations but they're, IMO, 19th century tools that do little more than add to the time necessary for preparing a meal.

        3 Replies
        1. re: todao

          Agreed, although it does depend on the seed and the m&p. I have one in marble that is good for bruising fresh herbs, but is worthless when it comes to someting like cardamom. I still use the m&p for cardamom only. It's a family tradition thing and it sure smells nice while you're grinding. Bottom line, I don't want to work that hard.

          1. re: grampart

            Agreed - for bruising spices and herbs before using them whole there is perhaps no better tool than the mortar and pestle. But, again IMO, the mortar and pestle is not the tool to use for "grinding" spices. Thanks for taking it to another level. My bad for failing to do that.

            1. re: todao

              I agree. I bought my M+P at a medical supplier -- durable and inexpensive. I also want a molcajete, but for grinding I use a Krups.

        2. It might be your technique. When I'm grinding seeds, I start out by just tapping them lightly until they break up a bit. This takes quite a while, but if you don't do this, they will fly out. Then once they're broken up, I exert more pressure until they are thoroughly crushed or ground. I use a mortar and pestle for smashing garlic, grinding fennel, cardamom (smash first to remove pod), whole cloves, peppercorns (when I only need a few), etc.

          I have a couple of mortars and pestles, but prefer the marble one as it doesn't retain flavors or smells.

          1 Reply
          1. re: Isolda

            that is excellent advice regarding technique. Many thanks.

          2. I must have had three or four mortars and pestles and at least one molcajete over the years and I wasn't happy with any of them until I bought the Fresco granite mortar and pestle pictured here ( http://www.fresco-intl.com/products/v... ) It's not only stunning to look at, it's a real pleasure to use. Although I've always had a dedicated coffee grinder for spices, I find I use the mortar and pestle far more frequently now. I especially like crushed but not pulverized spices in Asian cooking. Even if a recipe calls, for example, for ground cumin, I'll crush it in the m&p instead, preferring both the flavor and the texture than that produced by the grinder..

            1. Used to do the coffee grinder thing, but now have a large granite mortar-and-pestle and use it almost daily for grinding spices. Love the control over texture, the ability to grind just a skosh when I need it, and the fact that it doesn't retain odor.

              No matter how much white rice or other tricks I tried, little bits of coriander or whatever were forever sticking in various coffee grinder crevices, and I also found small amounts of whole spices tended to just blow around endlessly.

              It is nice to place a folded dish towel under the mortar for traction.

              3 Replies
              1. re: eight_inch_pestle

                thats what worried me. I was wondering whether or not I would have a problem grinding small amounts and I really didn't want to grind copious amounts when I only need a measly teaspoon. . After a bit of research, I jumped from the Spice Boy (Which I spent a freakin long time looking for as I only wanted the red one haha) to molcajete to the $100 marble mortar one from Williams Sonoma and finally settled on a $26.50 thai granite mortar and pestle from importfood.com which was featured in both the Wall Street Journal and Fine Cooking Magazine as their favorite mortar and pestle. It was even specifically recommended by Mark Bittman in his book, "The Best Recipes in the World". Plus Dorie Greenspan loves it. (tbh...I really had no idea who she was but then I realized several of her cookbooks were on my wishlist xD). Must be super amazing. Some here mention that it takes a bit of work to grind spices with a mortar and pestle but apparently this specific one needed very little elbow grease. Hopefully this works for me. Gotta treat my mom super nice tomorrow so she'll buy it for me hahahaha.

                  1. re: germanpotatosoup

                    Yup. I think mine came from Sur La Table a few years ago. They no longer carry it, but it's pretty much identical if not the same one. I think you'll love it.

                1. In short, I like it alright. For small quantity, I use mortar and pestle. For larger quantity, I use an electric coffee grinder.

                  1. I admit to a bias, but my molcajete gets a lot done. And when I'm serving up antojitos of camarones con cebollas verde y salsa, it's attractive, also.

                    1. I only started using a mortar and pestle about twelve years ago when I bought one as a bar present (muddling mint and such) for Mr. Rat. I used a Krups before that and although it takes longer as you said to break down the larger harder spices (peppercorns etc.) I found to my surprise that I much preferred using the M&P because there was so much less waste and it was much easier to clean. Ours is marble, so no problem with off flavors.
                      On the devil's advocate side, we are rarely cooking for more than two, so that may play into things for us.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: ratgirlagogo

                        I find that for grinding spices, a conventional marble mortar and pestle is really ineffective. I use a Japanese-style ceramic mortar and pestle with internal ribbing, which allows for much easier grinding of spices. They're easily available at Asian stores or on-line from Amazon.

                        1. re: strangemd

                          The marble one we have has internal ribbing as well.

                      2. It's the only way to grind spices.

                        I even use my mortar and pestle to make pesto.

                        1. I have a Thai granite one and I use it all te time. Fennel seed, coriander seed, cloves of garlic etc. all come out great.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: melpy

                            I have a Thai granite mortal and pestle, too. I love it. It grinds spices very well. For large quantities I use a coffee grinder or my large Indian wet/dry grinder.

                          2. This is super specific but I like to use a tiny ceramic one for saffron. It's pretty useless for anything else but just perfect for saffron. I'm Iranian, though, and use saffron very frequently in Persian cuisine.

                            1. Back in the last century, in an excess of purity, I bought a manual coffee grinder. It didn't take too long to realize that grinding beans was about the last thing I wanted to do in the morning. However, I took up Indian cooking shortly after, and the grinder proved useful, and saved me from buying spices in different forms. That said, I do use a granite mortar and pestle as well.

                              1. Also a massive M&P fan. I use a Thai granite model and it is really just sensational. My only tip to add is that in addition to the M&P itself, also think about purchasing a really flexible silicone spatula. It makes getting wet ingredients out of the mortar a real dream and cuts down heaps on waste. I make a lot of thai pastes in mine and I really appreciate it.

                                1. I use a small marble mortar and pestle at least a few times a week. If I were grinding a handful of spices (which I rarely do) then the coffee grinder would work well. But I find small amounts just spin around in the machine.

                                  When using the m & p, I add a pinch of coarse salt as grit (which helps a lot), then break up the spices a little with a light pounding. At that point I press down and quickly rotate the pestle in the mortar. In a few moments the spices will be ground to whatever texture I want them to have, from coarse bits to fine powder. The m & p gives excellent control over the resulting spice texture and takes minimal effort when dealing with small quantities.

                                  I would guess that many who don’t like using the device for dry spices continue with the initial up and down pounding that is just meant to break things up, rather than switch to the far more effective rotating, grinding action that finishes the job.

                                  1. I've read someplace (perhaps even here) that it helps to use a pestle of a different material than the mortar. Having broken several pestles I have an excess of mortars which i use with the Thai granite pestle that I haven't broken yet. Adding some coarse salt to the spices also helps.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: UCLA909

                                      +1 on the salt. Especially useful for cloves of garlic.

                                    2. You may want to upgrade the size of your mortar and pestle. I have always used a marble and pestle to grind spices but recently downgraded in size and find that seeds often times fly out of the smaller mortar whereas they would have been easily pulverized in the old, larger model I used to have.

                                      6 Replies
                                      1. re: JungMann

                                        My mortar and pestle gets here tomorrow. All 15-17 lbs of it. :D
                                        I'll be staring outside of the window all day.

                                        The mortar I was using was such a pain. It was a little smaller than my fist. Thank god I dont have to use that anymore. Now I need something to set it on. Im not too thrilled with the look of a mortar on a towel. Maybe a bamboo mat? a trivet? eh...i'll think of it while i stare outside the window. xD

                                        1. re: germanpotatosoup

                                          I use this white, round Le Creuset trivet under my large granite mortar and it works well:


                                          1. re: iyc_nyc

                                            Hey, using a silicone trivet is a great idea, thanks, iyc_nyc!

                                            1. re: togijiru

                                              I use the trivets for so many things. :-) They also come in coaster-size.

                                          2. re: germanpotatosoup

                                            Hi, gps:

                                            Well? How happy are you with the big piece of rock?

                                            Best bit of advice I can give you: If you value your sink, just wipe it out when you're finished. The polished stone is exceptionally slippery when wet. An inch or two drop will dent a metal sink (even with a mat) and chip enamel.

                                            Have fun,

                                            1. re: kaleokahu

                                              LOVE IT!!!! There was very little seasoning required. Honestly, im not sure if I really even needed to season it as grinding up the rice produced a white flour with no gray to it. But it didn't hurt to do it. I suspect my food processor will be gathering up dust now. I've already been convinced by mortar and pestle enthusiasts like David Thompson and Jamie Oliver that the mortar is the way to go. Plus I love that all I have to do is wipe it out rather than deal with the blades of the food processor. So much easier to clean up. Honestly, it grinds so effortlessly, im wondering why everyone here is saying that it takes so much more work to use. Im a mortar convert. :D

                                        2. I used a small porcelain mortar and pestle for years until I bought a large 11 lb "Goliath" granite M&P from Wayfair through Ebay for $50.00. Incredible performance and one-handed operation with pestle. Easy clean-up with no taste or smells leftover. One of my favorite kitchen tools. When I've given some as gifts, the recipients have always called to let me know how much they've enjoyed using it and have passed their marble M&Ps to someone else.


                                          1. Most M&P's are not designed right. The one I have is cast iron , tall, and narrow. The pestle looks like a stubby baseball bat, and the bottom is not smooth nor perfectly rounded.

                                            The proper way to use is to palm the end , push down, and towards the side. Then you rotate your hand around the mortar-do not grip the pestle, just palm it. As the pestle is pushed around the perimiter of the mortar it will rotate in your palm. The grinding action in the bottom pulverizes spices in no time. Some spices need a slight smashing first to get them to flow right, and also do not overfill the mortar. If they are smooth the spices just slide around, and the pestle cannot grip the sides well enough to rotate.

                                            1. I also start by tapping a bit then twist and crush. I sometimes use a more circular motion around the ribbed side to see if I've missed any. I usually cover the top with my other hand at first to keep any from flying out. It's not much trouble when you're only grinding up a small amount. I would probably use a coffee grinder if I had to grind a very large quantity.

                                              1. I use ceramic mortars and pestiles, the kind used in old fashioned pharmacies. I have two sizes. They work well, but some spices are more resistant to grinding than others. I also have an electric spice mill/chopper. When I need to pulverize a large amount, or things like cloves or star anise, I process them first in the electric before transferring to the mortar and pestile. Saves a lot of work and frustration.

                                                1. I love the idea of a granite or marble M&P, but don't have a lot of need for one.

                                                  However, one day, years ago, I really wanted one on short notice and found a wooden one(!) in the local African import store. For one or two teaspoons of cumin or coriander seed, or a smashed clove of garlic or two, it's fine and doesn't wear out my muscles. For larger quantities of spices, I use the Krups grinder.

                                                  I admit to doing salsas in a blender, though I realize a molcajete would be a better idea.

                                                  1. The spices you name are exactly the ones that are especially challenging in a mortar and pestle. Coriander, for example, has a tough shell that breaks down much more slowly than something like fennel seed or even star anise. I use a propellor blade grinder for such spices, but still love my thai granite M&P (about 6" interior diameter) wherever it's effective. You cam mix the two, of course.

                                                    When visiting my mother once I found a manual grinder that was perhaps for spices or cooffee, who knows. It was like an antique on her shelves. It had a hand crank and conical burrs and a little wooden drawrer/basket. It was FABULOUS for making a garam masala mix. I want that in the will when she's gone.

                                                    3 Replies
                                                    1. re: Bada Bing

                                                      Sounds like an old fashioned coffee mill. If it is, I made coffee with one of those from about age 25 to 35, when I broke down and bought a Kitchen Aid electric coffee mill and let my biceps revert to normal size. Actually, it wasn't that coffee mill that required muscles. It's my Turkish coffee mill, which I still have but don't use because I've lost the muscles!

                                                      1. re: Caroline1

                                                        Peugot has a pepper grinder modeled after those old fashioned coffee mills. Its the Peugeot Olivier Roellinger. Not sure if it can be used for spices though. Its a bit overpriced at $100. I wonder if you could even grind coffee in it. I actually wanted one of those manual coffee grinders for their old world charm but it sounds like its not worth the hassle.

                                                      2. re: Bada Bing

                                                        I must have bought a really good mortar. It actually grinds coriander with little effort. :D

                                                      3. Here's my "Goliath" Granite M&P and one slightly older. http://i1354.photobucket.com/albums/q...

                                                        The other is prehistoric from south east Tennessee near the Sequahchie River. The sandstone mortar is approximately 9.5x8x4. The red color is from fires over time. The reverse side has small concave depressions pecked out to hold nuts. The pestle is 4.5 " tall, and hand polished by years of use. Not show is a nutting stone/stone anvil found alongside the mortar and pestle. This was the kitchen of prehistoric natives 2000 years ago.

                                                        It's a pleasure to use it still and to talk about the centuries of hands before mine.

                                                        1. I was thinking of getting a Japanese suribachi for grinding spices instead of my smooth mortar and pestle. Does anyone use that?