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Your experience with grinding spices in a mortar and pestle?

germanpotatosoup Sep 30, 2012 08:01 AM

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.

  1. t
    travelerjjm Oct 19, 2012 09:49 AM

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

    1. sgphoto Oct 16, 2012 01:39 PM

      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. Bada Bing Oct 14, 2012 12:55 PM

        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
          Caroline1 Oct 14, 2012 02:31 PM

          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
            germanpotatosoup Oct 16, 2012 07:42 AM

            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
            germanpotatosoup Oct 16, 2012 07:45 AM

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

          3. c
            comestible Oct 13, 2012 08:16 PM

            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. Caroline1 Oct 13, 2012 06:02 PM

              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. z
                zandapanda Oct 12, 2012 01:00 PM

                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. BIGGUNDOCTOR Oct 11, 2012 10:16 PM

                  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. sgphoto Oct 8, 2012 03:07 PM

                    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. JungMann Oct 5, 2012 01:26 PM

                      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
                        germanpotatosoup Oct 5, 2012 07:20 PM

                        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
                          iyc_nyc Oct 5, 2012 10:10 PM

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


                          1. re: iyc_nyc
                            togijiru Oct 6, 2012 12:54 AM

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

                            1. re: togijiru
                              iyc_nyc Oct 6, 2012 07:39 AM

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

                          2. re: germanpotatosoup
                            kaleokahu Oct 14, 2012 07:59 PM

                            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
                              germanpotatosoup Oct 16, 2012 08:00 AM

                              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. u
                          UCLA909 Oct 2, 2012 04:43 PM

                          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
                            melpy Oct 4, 2012 11:38 AM

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

                          2. v
                            VitalForce Oct 2, 2012 04:08 PM

                            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. Samuelinthekitchen Oct 1, 2012 06:21 PM

                              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. s
                                sr44 Oct 1, 2012 06:10 PM

                                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. t
                                  togijiru Oct 1, 2012 02:42 PM

                                  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. melpy Oct 1, 2012 08:07 AM

                                    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
                                      luckyfatima Oct 1, 2012 05:56 PM

                                      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. ipsedixit Oct 1, 2012 07:58 AM

                                      It's the only way to grind spices.

                                      I even use my mortar and pestle to make pesto.

                                      1. r
                                        ratgirlagogo Sep 30, 2012 06:37 PM

                                        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
                                          strangemd Oct 1, 2012 07:40 AM

                                          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
                                            ratgirlagogo Oct 2, 2012 04:41 PM

                                            The marble one we have has internal ribbing as well.

                                        2. Veggo Sep 30, 2012 05:56 PM

                                          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. Chemicalkinetics Sep 30, 2012 05:04 PM

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

                                            1. eight_inch_pestle Sep 30, 2012 04:55 PM

                                              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
                                                germanpotatosoup Sep 30, 2012 10:08 PM

                                                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
                                                  melpy Oct 1, 2012 08:10 AM

                                                  This is the one I mention below!

                                                  1. re: germanpotatosoup
                                                    eight_inch_pestle Oct 1, 2012 06:47 PM

                                                    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.

                                                2. JoanN Sep 30, 2012 12:17 PM

                                                  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. i
                                                    Isolda Sep 30, 2012 12:03 PM

                                                    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
                                                      Samuelinthekitchen Oct 1, 2012 06:15 PM

                                                      that is excellent advice regarding technique. Many thanks.

                                                    2. todao Sep 30, 2012 08:54 AM

                                                      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
                                                        grampart Sep 30, 2012 09:17 AM

                                                        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
                                                          todao Sep 30, 2012 09:20 AM

                                                          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
                                                            travelerjjm Sep 30, 2012 11:34 AM

                                                            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. m
                                                        mark111757 Sep 30, 2012 08:37 AM

                                                        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. h
                                                          Harters Sep 30, 2012 08:31 AM

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

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