Mortar and Pestle: Old School Kitchen Tool

An iconic symbol of pharmacies, the mortar and pestle is more than just a two-piece tool for grinding medications. For centuries, cooks in kitchens worldwide relied on mortars and pestles to prepare their cultures' signature dishes. Today, the mortar and pestle is often disregarded because of conveniences such as blenders, coffee grinders and food processors.

While these appliances can produce similar results, nothing replaces the hands-on experience or the flavor produced by the traditional mortar and pestle.

The mortar and pestle can trace its origin back to the Stone Age. Created out of necessity, it became an important part of the hunter-gatherer's life. Primitive mortars and pestles were used for everything from cracking nuts to grinding grains; their invention made consuming many foods possible. Early civilizations also used mortars and pestles in the field of medicine, as first documented by the Egyptians around 1500 B.C.

A two-part tool, the mortar is the bowl-shaped part of the pair where the food is placed. The pestle is the blunt, typically club-shaped object used to grind the mortar's contents. Because they are used worldwide for various purposes, mortars and pestles are made from many materials and vary in shape, texture and size. The most common are made of stone, such as lava rock, ceramic and marble. Less common are wood and cast iron models.

This tool adds fun and flavor to any kitchen. Grinding herbs and spices in a mortar and pestle releases their delicate natural oils, something an electric appliance cannot do. It is perfect for making healthy dips like guacamole (the Mexican version of a mortar and pestle is called a molcajete) and fresh tomato salsa as well as flavorful pastes and pesto from fresh herbs and olive oil. Mortars and pestles are also ideal for grinding spices into rubs and toppings to sprinkle over your favorite dishes.

Choose the best mortar and pestle for your kitchen by anticipating how it will be used most frequently. Smaller mortars and pestles are perfect for grinding spices, whereas larger versions are better suited for grinding large leafy items and nuts, or for mashing avocados.

The most user-friendly version is the stone mortar and pestle. Hard stones like granite and lava rock are non-porous, which makes them easy to clean and odor resistant. Look for a model with a deep mortar and a grainy texture; the depth provides leverage and the texture grips the food, making grinding easier.

Prices vary, but mortars and pestles can be purchased new for as little as 10 dollars.

In an era of specialized kitchen gadgets, mortars and pestles have maintained their relevance remarkably well. The mortar and pestle is versatile, easy to use and provides more control than its electric counterparts, allowing for both rustic and refined preparations. It is an excellent addition to any kitchen, and who can resist the allure of using an ancient tool to create something truly handmade?

Contributing Editor Sara Haas, RDN, LDN, works at Roche Dietitians and the Centered Chef in Chicago.

Egyptian Dukkah

Developed by Sara Elnakib, RD


1/2 cup roasted apricot kernels
1/2 cup roasted almonds
1/2 cup sesame seeds
2 Tbsp. cumin seeds
2 Tbsp. fresh ground black pepper
1 tsp. salt


  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
  2. Lay nuts and kernels flat on a baking sheet and roast for two minutes. Set aside.
  3. Mix ingredients together and grind in a mortar and pestle.
  4. To serve, sprinkle on your favorite dishes as a savory seasoning, or dip pita or sesame bread in olive oil, then in the dukkah. Dukkah also pairs well with hummus and vegetables.

Nutritional Info

Serving size: 1 tablespoon

Calories: 43
Total Fat: 3g; Sat. Fat: 0g
Chol.: 0g; Sodium: 88mg
Carb.: 2g; Fiber: 1g; Sugars: 0g
Protein: 2g; Potassium: 50mg; Phosphorus: 26mg.

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Sara Haas
Sara Haas, RDN, LDN, is a Chicago-based dietitian and co-author of the Fertility Foods Cookbook. Read her blog, The Cooking RD, and connect with her on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.