Mmm pesto—the Italian green sauce from Genoa that transforms simple pasta, adds an edge to pizza, and is the finishing touch on a panini.
In my humble opinion, pesto is a great invention. It’s simple, yet very effective and absolutely delicious. After all, Italians know how to cook, reflecting La Dolce Vita (The Sweet Life) through their food.
Italians also love to use lots of herbs when preparing food to create rich flavors, and pesto is no exception. Pesto is an uncooked sauce of garlic, oil, cheese, pine nuts, salt, and herbs. The ingredients can be ground up together in a blender or, if you want to go old school, roll up your sleeves and use a pestle and mortar. That brings us to the topic of this article: What is the best mortar and pestle for pesto? (What a mouthful!)
Why should I use a mortar and pestle for pesto?
Yes, using a mortar and pestle takes time and effort, but the results are so worth it. A blender or food processor is quick and fuss-free, but the ol’ mortar and pestle requires a bit of extra TLC. What is it about this low-tech tool that makes it so amazing?
There’s something so therapeutic and rewarding about creating something by hand. When you add delicious aromas into the mix, it’s even better.
Using a mortar and pestle is a traditional method for making pesto. It harks back to a time before electricity changed the world and technology filled our kitchens with gadgets. It also allows for a bit freestyle cooking. Who wants to follow a strict recipe anyway? Use a mortar and pestle and have some fun experimenting.
How to choose a mortar and pestle
The team at Fine Cooking has very kindly tested 18 different kits. In their online equipment review, they say material, shape, and size are the key components to consider when searching for the ideal mortar and pestle.
Basically, the kit should be made from heavy, sturdy material that’s not so smooth as to be slippery, and not so rough that it’s hard to clean. Fine Cooking recommends granite as the best material to fulfill all those specifications, but stone or marble are also good. Additionally, it’s better to choose a bigger mortar and pestle kit, as it allows you to prepare larger quantities and prevents ingredients from falling over the sides.
Fine Cooking voted the Thai granite mortar and pestle from Import Food as the favorite from their experiment. It is a solid, hand-carved piece of equipment that Fine Cooking says excelled at a range of tasks from “mashing delicate herbs to grinding stubborn peppercorns.” It has a 2-cup capacity, is 7 inches in diameter, weighs around 12 pounds, and costs $30.95. This model is only available from Import Food’s website.
The runners up include a mortar and pestle made from basalt (volcanic rock). Basalt is traditionally used in Mexico for making guacamole and salsa, but can also be used for pesto. Gourmet Sleuth sells the Mexican molcajete y tejolote poblano basalt kit, which has a 3-cup capacity. However, it has a textured surface that’s more difficult to clean.
A cast iron mortar and pestle by Typhoon also fared well in the review, but Fine Cooking says the material from which it’s made can react with acidic ingredients, making it prone to rusting. A pedestal style kit by Fox Run has good qualities, but is too small for larger quantities and crushing peppercorns.
The tests show that granite, marble, or stone is the preferred material of choice when shopping for a mortar and pestle. Also, opt for big over small.
Now all we need is a little pesto trivia, a recipe, and we can crack on with living La Dolce Vita like the Italians.
World pesto champs
Back in April, BBC Magazine featured an article on Genoa resident Roberto Panizza. Panizza has been making pesto in a giant marble mortar for 15 years and is on a mission to bring back the tradition. He also hosts the world pesto-making championship in the Ligurian city, where every two years 100 people compete for the title of Palazzo Ducale. Italian pesto makers are serious about their craft and want others to join them in their passion.
BBC says Panizza is a founding member of the Palatifini Association (meaning “refined palates”). The Association is a group of like-minded people with a love for gastronomy and hosting culinary events. Follow their recipe below for an authentic Italian pesto.
Palatifini Association Pesto Sauce Recipe
- Genoese basil (4 bunches)
- Ligurian extra virgin olive oil
- 1-2 cloves of garlic (from Vessalico if possible)
- 30g Italian pine nuts
- 450g grated Parmesan cheese
- 20-40g grated Pecorino cheese
- 10g coarse salt
Now for the method. Pound the mixture in the mortar, starting with the garlic and pine nuts. Then add the salt and basil leaves. Once the mixture is bright green, add both cheeses before blending everything together with a little olive oil. Of course, if you can’t get ahold of the Italian ingredients, use what is seasonal and available for you. And, don’t be afraid to experiment.
Wondering how long your pepper will stay fresh? Check out my guide to keeping pepper fresh.
To see a recipe for a fun Italian dish that you can use your pesto with, check out this post on how to cook calzones in a cast iron skillet!