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The History of the Mortar and Pestle

What Is a Mortar and Pestle?

A mortar is a hard bowl or cup made of a variety of materials, depending on use and where in the world you find it. A pestle is a long, club-like tool used to squish and mash things down inside of the mortar. If you are from the United States, you may recognize the mortar and pestle as being the symbol of a particular pharmacy chain. 

The word “mortar” comes from the Latin word “mortarium,” which can be loosely translated as “place for pounding.” 


History of the Mortar and Pestle

The mortar and pestle are a set of tools that have been around for centuries, with evidence of this set being used all the way back in 35,000 BC. The Papyrus Ebers, an Egyptian medical document, contains the first documented record of the mortar and pestle from 1550 BC. The mortar and pestle were used in Egypt as both medical and culinary tools. The Greeks used a mortar and pestle that was made from stone and more bowl-like than cup-like, which is the more common look of today’s mortar. 

Around the 14th century, bronze became the material of choice for creating these tools. By the 16th century, mortars were being decorated with handles, knobs, or sometimes even spouts for easy pouring. They were occasionally decorated with artwork, too. Both the mortar and pestle continued to be made of bronze, but sometimes they were made of wood or stone. Bronze was a popular choice through the middle ages and the Renaissance period, though with continued use the bronze would turn dark brownish green and become unsuitable for use. 

The very first parody play in English, first performed in 1607, was called “The Knight of the Burning Pestle” and it was a satire on the chivalric romances popular at the time. It was first published in 1613, divided up into four sections. This story focused on themes that were present in stories like Don Quixote, and it often broke the fourth wall. The knight in the play uses a burning pestle as the symbol on his shield. 

In the late 1700s, porcelain mortar and pestles became available, and quickly took over a large portion of the market since they were acid-resistant and easy to clean. This type remains popular even today. 

The stone and muller was another version of the mortar and pestle. This was popularized by artists in the late 18th and early 19th centuries as a tool to blend and mix paints. The stone and muller were two flat pieces that were rubbed together, which differs slightly from the mortar and pestle, although they are used for the same reason- to pulverize things. 

The sil batta is the mortar and pestle, similar to the stone and muller, that has been used throughout time in Indian cooking. The sil is a flat bed made of stone that the batta can be rolled across for the grinding process. The sil batta is used for making mostly wet spice pastes and for making masalas, or spice blends. 

The mortar and pestle have a scary story in history, too. Baba Yaga is a Russian witch who rides around in a mortar and uses the pestle as her rudder, to guide her through the sky. This witch terrorizes children and cannot tell lies. She is also bound by her promises, so she usually ends up making deals with children to trick them into her mortar or her house that moves around on chicken legs. Some stories of Baba Yaga end positively, but mostly they end with her scooping up children to be made into dinner. These unassuming kitchen tools can have some wicked associations in Russia! 

In America, the mortar and pestle has had a long history too. The cupstone is one of the first American iterations of the mortar and pestle, which is a stone with a small divot in it. This cupstone can be used to grind small amount of spices, wheat, or anything else really that needed to be mashed up. The cupstone has been found with other native American artifacts in the United States, dating back to precolonial times. 

The first automatic mortar grinder, called the Retschmill, was made in 1923 by F. Kurt Retsch. This was developed to make the results of the mortar and pestle more uniform and easily recreated. 


What Do You Use a Mortar and Pestle For?

Traditionally the mortar and pestle were used in both food and medical applications, for grinding grain, spices, or medicines. Today, many people use a mortar and pestle in their home for grinding spices. There is careful consideration for what kind of mortar and pestle you want to use, since you want to ensure that they are not worn away by the action of grinding or mixing.

There are a few types of mortar and pestle. Each kind is better suited for different things, so it is easy to become overwhelmed when shopping for your first one. Some are better than others at being multipurpose. 

  • Glass- These are the best mortar and pestles to use with liquids, although they are fragile. They are easy to clean and don’t stain, so they are suitable for colorful things.

  • Ceramic- Ceramic is a popular choice in Italy and Spain for making pestos and guacamole. It is used across Europe for many foods and spices, but predominantly foods with a liquid element. In Thailand, this kind of mortar and pestle is used for bruising ingredients to bring out more flavor, not necessarily for pulverization.

  • Wood- This type of mortar and pestle has a bit of a weakness. It tends to absorb the flavors of the things contained within the wooden bowl, which can be nice if you like the gradual buildup of flavors, but can be very bad if you forget and pound down some garlic, only for your herbs and spices to taste like garlic until the end of time, or until you throw the mortar and pestle away. These are popular in the Mediterranean. In some parts of the world, big wooden mortar and pestles are used in group cooking and are often operated by more than one person.

  • Marble- These are wonderful for grinding spices, but slippery insides make it hard to effectively crush herbs. They take a lot more energy and time to crush and work with soft or wet things because the marble is slippery.

  • Granite- this is a very reliable, versatile mortar and pestle. They tend to have a little bit of an irregular texture, making easier work of the task at hand. Granite is the most popular material for mortar and pestles in Thailand. They are exceptional for the everyday.

  • Cast Iron- These require a lot of care and upkeep, and the pestle cannot be made of cast iron as well, or else it could damage the mortar. Some cast iron mortars will have a thick coating on the inside that is meant to discourage rust, but instead created problems by making the mortar too slippery to work with.

  • Japanese Earthenware- Japanese speakers call the mortar and pestle the suribachi. It is used for grinding things like meat, tofu, and spices. It’s great for making pesto and other herb-based pastes, because of its interior with ridges.

  • Volcanic rock / Basalt- These are used predominantly in Mexican cooking, and their texture is either extremely rough or extremely smooth, depending on their sand content.

  • Automatic- these are made of varying materials, but they are usually used in manufacturing and pharmaceutical applications to ensure the same results every time. When using a mortar and pestle by hand, the results are not easily reproduced and are not reliable in commercial or medicinal settings.

When cleaning your mortar and pestle, depending on the material, you may only need to grind down some uncooked rice to get it clean. This is a good tip for cleaning wooden ones. Things like granite or glass can be gently washed with soap and water and then dried.

Some people prefer to use a hand powered mortar and pestle instead of an automatic grinder because they believe this helps release the herbs and spices’ aromatics better. There is also the belief that anything ground down with a mortar and pestle will taste better. Some people use it simply to continue the tradition from times past. Whatever your reason, get your hands on one of the world’s oldest tools and start grinding. 


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