Nothing compares to the intensity of freshly ground herbs and spices. It can make a massive difference in a dish as opposed to packaged or pre-ground spices. The easiest implement to get freshly ground ingredients is a mortar and pestle. The simple contraption has been used by almost every ancient culture. Whether it is to grind medicinal herbs to prepare medicines or to make spice mixtures for cooking, a mortar and pestle is one ancient contraption that has made it to modern times.
Even today, chefs and home cooks alike prefer to grind their ingredients freshly using a mortar and pestle. Whether it is to grind dry spices, or make pastes, it is the ideal instrument. However, if you don’t have a mortar and pestle, several other things can be used instead. Some of the alternatives to a mortar and pestle are listed below along with their uses:
- A mixer grinder
A mixer grinder is an appliance that can be found in any home today. It is an indispensable appliance in most households. It can be used to grind dry spices and make pastes too. Most mixer grinders have a dedicated wet jar for grinding wet spices and making pastes such as ginger, garlic, chilies, and coriander leaves.
However, it is recommended not to use it too often to grind dry spices like pepper, cumin, and coriander as the hard seeds can damage the blades.
- A spice grinder
A spice grinder is a small grinder that is designated for grinding dry spices. It is ideal for grinding spices like chili, cumin, coriander, pepper, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, dried lemon, and dried herbs and leaves. It blends spices into a fine powder. It cannot be used with wet spices like garlic and ginger.
- A rolling pin
This might seem like an unusual choice, but in some situations, it can work. It will work better for soft spices like garlic, ginger, turmeric, and chili. The best way to use a rolling pin would be to assemble the spices on a layer of plastic wrap or put it in a Ziploc bag.
The spices should be chopped into smaller pieces for ease of grinding. After wrapping them over with the plastic wrap, the rolling pin can be used on a flat surface to grind the spices. This is, however, a more complex and messy process with a substantial amount of cleanup.
- A meat hammer
A meat hammer is used to tenderize filets of meat but can also be used to grind ginger and garlic. It would involve the use of plastic wrap or a sturdy Ziploc bag, much like the rolling pin method. This would yield better results, as the ends of the hammer are textured and not flat. It will easily be able to pound and grind the soft spices.
- An empty wine bottle
An empty wine bottle can be used to pound some soft spices as the bottom of the bottle is thick and heavy. However, the most significant risk here is that too much pressure can cause the bottle to shatter, making a huge mess. Use a bottle only if you are confident that you can apply the right amount of pressure and not get overzealous.
- A coffee grinder
It is an unusual option, but a coffee grinder can be used to grind spices too. This is only applicable for dry spices like pepper, cumin and coriander seeds. Do not put wet ingredients like ginger and garlic. Set the coffee grinder to the level of fineness that the recipe requires. Then add the spices and grind to a coarse grind. This will probably not yield a fine powder. Clean the grinder thoroughly before using it to grind coffee again.
If you have a coffee grinder, you might have a roaster too. The roaster can be used to roast spices too. Roasting spices before grinding will release all their aromatic oils and will greatly intensify their flavor.
- A heavy pan
A heavy cast-iron skillet or heavy-bottomed pan can be used to pound soft spices in a last-minute emergency. The back of a skillet is also effective for coarsely grinding peppercorns. Place the spice on a chopping board and softly place the pan on the spices. Then apply pressure evenly to break down the peppercorns. In the case of garlic, it will be easily smashed.
What kind of mortar and pestle is ideal?
Mortar and pestles are made of various materials. While some are ideal, others should be avoided. The best materials for a mortar and pestle would be ceramic, porcelain, stone and wood. These are naturally heavy and do not cause any reaction with what is being ground in them. They maintain the integrity of the surface well too. The heavier the pestle, the better will be the result of grinding. For this reason, heavy stone pestles are the best choice.
The materials to avoid while buying a mortar and pestle are steel and other metals like brass, copper, and alloys. These can have a reaction with what is being ground in them. It can also alter the flavor of the spices.
Good mortar and pestle made of stone, ceramic or wood may be a little expensive, but it is an investment that will last a long time. Once you use a mortar and pestle to grind fresh spices, you will not go back to using pre-ground spices or pastes.