This blog post is a beginning of sorts…it’s the first post on JuicyMaters.com in the cooking section since I did a total remodel of the JuicyMaters website. In honor of “the beginning”, I’m going to get a bit retro on ya’ with some thoughts on a VERY old fashioned kitchen tool…a tool from way back in “the beginning” of cookery.
Hush up, Irish…I’m not ALWAYS retro.
No I’m not.
Y’all please ignore the tall redhead giving me a hard time. She thinks I’m so retro that my preferred method to start a fire is either a flint and stone or by rubbing two sticks together. I’m not as retro, or stone age, as Irish thinks I am.
I might just practice that rubbing sticks together thingy though…it might come in handy sooner than we think…(never mind…that’ll be an upcoming post for either “Family Homesteading” or “Politics…The Dungeon”).
Anyway, right now we’re gonna talk about one of my favorite kitchen tools…a mortar and pestle.
A retro mortar and pestle.
A heavy mortar and pestle.
A large mortar and pestle.
A heavy mortar and pestle.
A purdy mortar and pestle.
A heavy mortar and pestle.
A heavy, large, and purdy (and retro) mortar and pestle.
Did I mention…It’s heavy?
Anyway…about having a mortar and pestle in your kitchen…
My first reason for having a mortar and pestle is because I think it is the only way a cook who wants ground spices that taste like they should, can get them. Other options for getting spices are either flavorless, distort flavors, or cost a couple hundred thousand dollars to produce.
The flavorless option is obviously the pre-packaged, pre-ground spices in the little jars in the spice section of the local supermarket. While the flavor in those jars is usually true to how the spice is intended to taste, they are usually too old to have the right intensity of both flavor and bouquet that good cooking demands.
Let’s talk a little about spices and herbs. Spices are the root, stem, and nuts or seeds of a plant. Examples of root spices are horseradish and ginger, an example of a “stem” spice is cinnamon, and in the seed/bud family of spices is cloves, among others.
For the trivia fans out there, cinnamon and cloves provide some good, “Hey…did you know…” facts for kitchen conversation. Next time you have some foodie friends over and y’all are standing around the kitchen, throw these facts out.
You’ll either impress your friends…or they’ll say, “So… you read JuicyMaters too, eh?”
Anyway…first let’s talk about cinnamon. Actually, there are two different kinds of cinnamon. The really good stuff, Ceylon Cinnamon, or cinnamomum zeylanicum, is grown in South America and the West Indies…and unfortunately we rarely see it here in the United States. About the only way you will ever enjoy the pleasure of Ceylon Cinnamon will be either at a very high-end restaurant that has “special” suppliers, or by ordering it off the internet…and if you do that be SURE you order from someone reputable so you don’t pay top dollar and actually get the cheap stuff.
The other kind of cinnamon, the cinnamon we usually see here in the US, is Cassia Cinnamon, or cinnamon cassia, and as you know, it has a very good flavor and aroma…right up until you have a chance to enjoy Ceylon Cinnamon. Then you are forever spoiled and will always be saying to yourself, when you have anything with “regular” cinnamon, “dang it…I wish I had the good stuff”.
Both cinnamons are the soft inner bark of slightly different trees, both members of the Lauraceae, or Laurel family, that have been peeled off the branches of the trees and allowed to sun-dry.
Cloves are the dried buds of a plant in the Myrtaceae family, botinacal name Caryophyllus aromaticus, and is derived from the Latin “clavus”, or nail, due to the shape of the clove bud.
The clove tree is native to the Molucca, or Spice Islands, but can also be found in Madagascar, Brazil, Panang, Ceylon, Sri Lanka, and Malayasia.
In addition to their culinary uses, both cinnamon and cloves have been used for several thousand years for medicinal purposes.
Now you know more than you ever wanted to about cinnamon and cloves. Lets get back to talking about herbs, spices in general, and a mortar and pestle.
Remember…? That’s what we are here for…to talk about a mortar and pestle.
A heavy mortar and pestle.
Mortar and pestle.
Heavy mortar and pestle.
We covered what spices are…roots, woody stems, and buds…but what are herbs? Herbs are the leaves of plants used for culinary flavoring or to impart aroma. So since spices and herbs are both plant material, just from different parts of the plant, their response to handling is the same, right? So why do I say you need a mortar and pestle for spices, but not herbs, since they are so much alike?
You need the mortar and pestle because spices and herbs, despite both being plant material, react far differently to being handled…exactly opposite, in fact.
When you pick the leaves of an herb plant…Oregano for example, a common species of Origanum, a genus of the mint family…and dry then crush them, the flavors are concentrated and intensify as they dry, much like meat flavors intensify as it is dried into jerky, because the water evaporating, or drying, takes no flavor components with it. As long as the finished, dried herbs are stored in a cool, dry location in a sealed container, they will be just fine, and may actually “improve”.
Spices, on the other hand, respond exactly the opposite when crushed or cracked open. While a drying herb is losing water as it dries, leaving flavor behind in the herb, when a whole spice, like cloves or peppercorns for example, is cracked open and begins to dry, it is losing essential oils, and those oils are where a lot, if not most, of the flavor is.
Dried herbs can improve with age, but spices always…ALWAYS…begin losing flavor as soon as the whole spice is cracked open, so the question becomes…
How do I get fresh spices?
That is a good question, and it has several answers.
You do realize where this is heading, don’t you? The correct answer is gonna be “get a mortar and pestle”.
First, you can continue buying your spices, already crushed and fading, in the spice aisle of the local grocery. After all, that is probably what you have been doing and is what you are used to, so if you’ve never HAD freshly ground spices, you won’t miss having them. If you have never had something…anything…you don’t know what you’re missing and don’t miss it. Heck, if you use spices as fast as me, they don’t have time to get old and lose their flavor, right?
Nope for two reasons. First, a whole spice, a peppercorn for example, begins losing flavor the instant its dried outer shell is cracked. From there the flavor is on a downhill slide. Second, while you may use the spice quickly, do you know how long it sat in a warehouse before the manufacturer shipped it…and another warehouse at the grocery chain before being shipped to a store for you to buy? That “fresh” spice you just opened that you bought this morning might have been quite old already the moment you plucked it off the shelf.
So much for buying prepared, pre-crushed spices at the store. What are our other options?
Well…most of us know about and have a pepper mill, and that is just fine…for pepper that you want ground fairly fine…but what about cracked pepper, or ground cloves, or ground cinnamon? What then?
Note: A cinnamon quill does NOT fit in a pepper mill. (Technically, that is what a cinnamon stick is called…a quill).
Some folks use a coffee bean grinder to grind their spices, but this presents two problems. First, just as you can burn a coffee bean by grinding it for too long, lengthy grinding will burn the oils and make the spice…ANY spice…taste bitter. Second, it is not difficult to completely clean an electric coffee grinder after grinding a spice in it…IT IS IMPOSSIBLE! Spice flavors and aromas are intense, and there is no way to effectively clean ALL the residue out of an electric grinder after use, and some of the flavor of what you grind now will influence what you grind next time.
Of course, there is always that high dollar method I mentioned earlier. Remember…the one that costs a couple hundred thousand dollars? Large companies, like McCormick, have equipment, expensive equipment, that can grind spices without the friction in the grinding process heating and burning them (they are still stale already when you buy them, though, just not burnt), something a home coffee grinder cannot do.
Now THAT is what every home kitchen needs…a $250,000 piece of equipment to grind two teaspoons worth of cloves…
So, when all is said and done, to grind spices and get the proper result we are left with two tools that I consider kitchen necessities…a microplane, which I will cover in a later post, and a…
Mortar and pestle
Mortars and pestles ( What IS the plural? Mortar and pestles? Mortar and pestli? Mortars and Pestli? ‘Dem thangs?) come in a variety of sizes, from ones about the size of an egg cup to large wooden ones used in Caribbean cooking. Here is a video of one being used to make mafungo at “Benny’s Seafood Restaurant” in South Miami, FA, as featured on the Food Network show “Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives”, hosted by Guy Fieri.
This one is just a wee bit big for my kitchen. Also, it is used ONLY for mafungo so the fact the material it is made of…wood…is porous and will hold flavors doesn’t matter. In a home kitchen the material it’s made of DOES count.
I use a granite mortar and pestle for the slick, non-porous surface, and I use a relatively large one…you can do a little grinding in a large mortar, but you can’t grind a lot of stuff in a small one. While I use it most often for grinding small volumes, like spices, I also sometimes grind larger amounts of different foods and store what is not used immediately…making roasted garlic paste for salad dressings and roasted aioli for example. Because of this, I choose to use a granite mortar that is 5 inches tall, 8 inches in diameter, and that holds almost-but-not-quite four cups. The pestle is 8 inches long…and I consider this to be an appropriate size for a home kitchen.
Oh yeah…did I mention that It. Is. Heavy?
My kitchen scale won’t weigh high enough to weigh it…the food scale tops out at 10 lbs…but I’m guessing about 20 -25 pounds. Heck, the pestle alone weighs two lbs. (actually 1 lb., 14 oz.).
You’ll notice a trend in my kitchen tools articles…many of my favorites have a lot of “heft” to them, like this mortar and pestle and my cookware choice for almost ALL cooking…cast iron. (cast iron cookware will be the subject of a cooking tools post real soon).
In most products, both for cooking and otherwise, heft means quality. I hate to grab an item that feels so flimsy it feels like it won’t even survive the trip home from the store. There is another reason heft in the kitchen is a good thing…it saves you money.
The kitchen is where you create all those calorie-laden goodies you get from JuicyMaters, The Pioneer Woman, and Tasty Kitchen…so where but in the kitchen is it more appropriate to get a workout to burn off those calories? Using tools like cast iron cookware and granite mortar and pestles burns calories without spending that forty bucks a month for a gym membership.
A mortar and pestle…a kitchen tool that will help you step up your cooking results, looks good as countertop decoration when not being used, gets you exercising when using it, and will last a lifetime…long enough to pass along to your kids.
That beats your cooking legacy to your children being an empty McCormick ground pepper tin, doesn’t it?