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Nerdy Science in the Kitchen

Best Mortar and Pestle for Pesto



Pesto made the old-fashioned way!
Pesto made the old-fashioned way!

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!)

Best Mortar and Pestle for PestoPros and Cons
1. Libertyware 4-inch Stone Granite Mortar and Pestle Set granite does not rust or change the flavor of food, but the bottom of the pestle is untreated, so it may scratch your counters unless you are careful
2. Kota Natural Granite and Silicone Mortar and Pestle this set is rather small, but it has a non-slip base and a shape that prevents messes from spilling out
3. Priority Chef Heavy Duty Large Mortar and Pestle Set like the Libertyware, the granite mortar will not change the taste of your food, and also includes 2 non-slip countertop protectors to prevent surface scratching
4. ChefSofi Mortar and Pestle Set again, this is unpolished granite so needs to be used with care, but this comes with an anti-scratch counter protector and an Italian recipe book

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 of freestyle cooking. Who wants to follow a strict recipe anyway? Use a mortar and pestle and have some fun experimenting.

What will you use your pesto for? Pasta, pizza, or paninis?
What will you use your pesto for? Pasta, pizza, or paninis?

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 lets you prepare larger quantities and prevents ingredients from falling over the sides.

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.

Fine cooking claims size and material are the most important aspects of a mortar and pestle set.

Based on that article and a few others, I have put together a list of some of the best mortar and pestle kits available at Amazon and presented them to you from largest capacity to smallest.

Another great use for a mortar and pestle is grinding chili peppers.
Here’s my guide to sun drying your own chilis.

Libertyware 4-inch Stone Granite Mortar and Pestle Set

Stone Granite is one of the preferred materials as it doesn’t rust or affect the flavor of the food like some others. As for size, this mortar will typically work for most kitchen needs.

It is listed as having a 2.75-cup capacity. Personally, I would go a little bigger.

The granite is unfinished but can be finished if you know how. This means the bottom is a little rough and could scratch your counter if you’re not careful. Place something under it to protect your countertops, or finish the bottom so it is smooth.

The two tones of granite give it a nice look that will complete any kitchen.

Kota Natural Granite and Silicone Mortar and Pestle

The Kota Granite set holds a fair amount, around 1.5 cups, of whatever you’re making!

The shape of this mortar is not too wide and short. This makes it great for sauces as less is likely to splash over the top.

It also comes with a nonslip bottom to help ease worries about spillage! Anyone who has children who like to help in the kitchen can appreciate that feature.

The design is fitting for any kitchen and its shape makes it desirable to anyone with limited space, as it’s easier to store than traditional mortars.

Priority Chef Heavy Duty Large Mortar and Pestle Set

Heavy Duty Large Mortar and Pestle Set, Hand Carved from Natural Granite, Make Fresh Guacamole, Salsa, Pesto, Stone Grinder Bowl, Herb Crusher, Spice Grinder, 6.3 Inch Size, Black

At two cups, this is on the smaller side of the others on the list, but don’t let that deter you.

The Priority Chef Mortar and Pestle is made of solid granite, the ideal material for a mortar, and is beautifully, and practically, designed. The shape allows for even grinding of ingredients and prevents anything from accidentally spilling over the sides.

The base is completely flat, with no feet or coating to worry about. It also includes 2 non-slip countertop protectors the will prevent possible scratching

ChefSofi Mortar and Pestle Set

This mortar is unpolished granite, the preferred material, and has a 2-cup capacity. This is a little smaller than the rest on the list, but will work great for a small family or anybody cooking for one!

The unpolished granite assists in grinding up the food and helps keep the pestle from slipping while you mash and grind. The pestle itself is designed with a foolproof grip to ensure easy handling and prevent slippage.

The weight of this set means it won’t slip while you’re working, so you can focus on the cooking rather than the tools.

This mortar and pestle set includes more than just the mortar and pestle. When you order this item you will receive an Italian recipe book and an anti-scratch protector for your counters!

ChefSofi offers a satisfaction guarantee, that’s how confident the company is in its product. Should it fail to meet your expectations, feel free to return it and get your money back (though I don’t think you’ll need to)!

The favorite

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, and weighs around 12 pounds. 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.

Ever tried pesto in lasagna? It’s great.
See this post for my favorite lasagna pans for a crowd.

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 a hold of the Italian ingredients, use what is seasonal and available for you. And, don’t be afraid to experiment.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is it dishwasher-safe?

None of these are dishwasher safe. I repeat do not wash your mortar and pestle in the dishwasher!

Rinse it with piping-hot water before and after use. That’s all, no soap. Use a brush to scrub if anything sticks, but do not use soap.

How heavy is it?

The sets listed here are made from granite, a very heavy type of stone, so it’s not surprising that they weigh between 7 and 13 pounds!

The ChefSofi model weighs in at 7, while the Artsihome model weighs in at 13.

Since you’ll have to pick it up to move and wash it, it’s best not to get one you can’t easily lift. You could injure yourself, your counter, and your new mortar and pestle.

Keep the weight of the item in mind when purchasing not just for yourself, but when purchasing it as a gift. Don’t buy someone a 13-pound mortar and pestle set if they have arthritis (they probably won’t even be able to use it, much less lift it).

Will it scratch my counter?

Not if you’re careful!

ChefSofi sends her mortar and pestle sets with a pad to prevent that from happening. The others do not, so if you’re worried about it, it’s up to you to find something to place under it and keep your counters safe (save the countertops!).

All of these models boast that their mortar won’t slip, but they are trying to sell them, so take that with a grain of salt. They are slip-resistant, not slip-proof, accidents happen.

Use a cloth underneath, or place it on a dish drying pad or hot pad, anything that will cushion your counters!

How and why do you season a mortar and pestle set?

You “season” the mortar and pestle when you first buy it simply to get rid of anything leftover from the manufacturing process. It helps remove chips or powders from the shaping of the mortars and pestle that may have been trapped inside.

You only have to do this once, before the first use.

To season the mortar and pestle simply wash it out and let it dry. This should get rid of some of the powder. Then grind some dry herbs in the dry mortar, with the dry pestle, and dump them out, the powder should go out with the herbs.

Wash it one more time to get rid of any residual powder or herbs to keep it from affecting the flavor of your first dish!

Should I worry about stone powder ending up in my food?

Honestly, I’m more worried about the chemicals we present to our bodies when we eat store-bought dressings and sauces. Grinding herbs like this is no different from stone ground flour, which people have been eating for centuries.

Since the mortar and the pestle are made from the same material, they shouldn’t wear each other down much. If you were using a softer pestle or mortar, you might see more wear on the softer piece and get more stone in your food.

You may get a bit of granite powder in your food, but not enough to cause alarm.

Wondering how long your pepper will stay fresh? Check out my guide to keeping pepper fresh.

Save money! Dry your own herbs. Here’s my post on the best herb dehydrators.

Buon appetito!

To see a recipe for a fun Italian dish that you can use your pesto with, check out how to cook calzones in a cast iron skillet.


Image credit via Flickr Creative Commons: Phyllis B. and Katrin G.

Kitchen Professor author
About the Author: Bryce Heitman

Bryce is not a real professor, but he's real nerdy in the kitchen. He's been barbecuing, chopping, and generally blazing food for many decades. He thinks there's definitely a better spatula or utensil out there that hasn't been invented yet.

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