4 Techniques to Get the Most Out of Your Mortar and Pestle

Learn the proper way to use this versatile kitchen tool to create pestos, spice pastes, finely ground spices, and more.

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We love a good mortar and pestle

It's a versatile, low-tech multitasker that allows you to crush whole spices into powder, smash garlic into a paste, or break up nuts into smaller pieces. We believe the crushing action of the pestle is also better than the blades on a grinder or food processor at extracting more aromatic oils and flavor compounds from fresh, moist ingredients such as those in a spice paste or pesto. 


The key to using a mortar and pestle effectively is varying your motions. These best practices will help you make the most of any type of mortar and pestle, including a molcajete, a mortar and pestle set traditional to indigenous groups in the region around present-day Mexico.

1. Prep the Ingredients. Toast whole spices or nuts so they'll be dry and brittle and break apart more readily. Slice tough or fibrous foods thin against grain to shorten fibers so they can be mashed more easily.

2. Wield the Pestle Multiple Ways. If it's a long pestle, grasp it in your fist. If it's a short pestle such as a tejolote, hold it more like a paintbrush for added control.

Pound: First, use vigorous up-down motion to break up large pieces.

Scrape: Gently pound and “rake” ingredients toward you to further break down pieces. Be sure to maintain downward pressure on the pestle at all times as you scrape. 

Grind: Move pestle in circular motion, pushing pieces against mortar's walls, to pulverize. Again, keep the pestle pressed firmly against the bowl.

3. Don't Overfill

If ingredients fill more than one-third of mortar, work in batches. This will also allow you to move pestle more efficiently and vigorously, and there's no risk of items spilling from bowl.

4. Keep It Neat

In order to prevent hard ingredients from flying out, cup your non-pestle-wielding hand over the bowl.


If you have a new mortar and pestle made from any coarse material, including granite or volcanic rock, you need to season it before use in order to prevent stray particles from the stone from getting into your food.

To clean a mortar and pestle it is best to wash it by hand with warm water and dish soap. Read more about cleaning and caring for your mortar and pestle here.

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