Last Updated on November 03, 2022
Mortar and Pestle vs. Spice Grinder: Using freshly ground spices is a trick to elevate your dishes instantly. Here we compare the most used equipment for the best results.
We In the middle ages, black pepper was known as black gold. It was so valuable that people even used it as currency, and at times it was even more expensive than gold. It makes perfect sense if you think about it; the pungent, fragrant, and appetizing notes that spices add to our food are invaluable. Today, we don’t have to pay an arm and a leg to add spices to our food — except maybe if you want to use spices like saffron, vanilla beans, or long peppers, which still cost a fortune. These days, regular spices like pepper, oregano, thyme, rosemary, etc., are produced on a large scale and are very affordable.
You can typically buy them in powder form or as a whole, in which case you’ll have to grind them. In this guide, we’ll talk about the difference between pre-ground and whole spices and the two common methods to grind them: mortar and pestle sets and spice grinders. Knowing the proper way to grind your spices will help you turn even a mediocre dish into a gourmet one!
Whole Spices vs. Pre-ground Spices
Here’s a simple experiment for you: open your cupboards and smell the ground spices and dried aromatic herbs sitting in the jars. You can probably tell what is what only from their smell. Then, smell some freshly ground spices and dried herbs. Amazing, right? A shockwave of robust and piquant scents hit your nose.
We owe the potency of spices to the aromatic oils in them. These molecules are often highly volatile, meaning they react when they come in contact with air, heat, and even light. So even though the ground cumin sitting in your spice rack for over a month can still add warm, earthy notes to your dishes, some of its aroma and flavors will be wasted.
In short, preground spices are not ideal for cooking. Even if you keep them in a cool and dark place, you’ll lose some of the aroma and flavor molecules with time.
The Secret Ingredient: Whole Spices
We suggest you try to have whole spices at hand whenever possible. They don’t have to be newly bought, even a relatively old nutmeg will surprise with its potency. That’s because whole spices preserve aromatic oils much better than ground spices. This is exactly what you want in your dishes, not a faint, barely-there fragrance.
The trick is to get fresh, whole spices and grind them whenever you need them. How? There are many ways of grinding spices, including spice grinders and mortar and pestle sets.
Spice Grinders vs. Mortar and Pestle Sets
Spice grinders are the most common tool for grinding spices. An electric spice grinder can turn a handful of hard whole spices into fine dust in only a minute. Many chefs around the world use them, thanks to their accessibility and practicality. There are also manual spice grinders, which are harder to work with but do the job when you need to add a pinch of black pepper to your stew.
Another technique that’s also been used for ages is to grind spices in between two hard rocks. The best way to do this is to use a mortar and pestle. This stone-to-stone technique successfully breaks the cell walls inside the spices, releasing the essential oils.
Let’s take a look at how these two methods work in action and decide which one’s better.
Texture and Consistency
Just like blenders, spice grinders use small sharp blades to chop up pieces of whole spices into finer dust. The downside here is that spice grinders don’t have settings for different textures and consistencies.
For finer dust, you simply need to grind the spices longer. Because their blades are quite sharp and rotate at a very high speed, even an extra second can make you miss the sweet spot of the texture you’re aiming for.
On the other hand, when you use a set mortar and pestle, you grind your spices manually. This requires some serious elbow grease, but holding the pestle in your hand allows you to decide how much pressure to apply and when to stop.
In short, a mortar and pestle give you all the control over how fine you want your spices to be, while a spice blender goes fast and furious on the spices.
As I said, aroma typically comes from the essential oil cells in the spices. Chopping them up with a sharp blade does bring out some of it, but just like the difference between smashed and chopped garlic, grinding spices by pounding on them in a mortar and pestle brings out much more of that delicious essential oils. That’s because the smashing action bursts open the cell walls and lets the particles out while just cutting them into small pieces preserves a big portion of the cell walls intact.
Even when you grind dry spices, you still get a special natural juice, a spice extract that’s impossible to get with a spice grinder. It’s not going to be pooling in the mortar, but you’ll notice that the spice particles are slightly moist. This juice is an inestimable ingredient to add different layers of aroma and flavor to your dishes.
A Good Bang for Your Buck
A good, solid, and multipurpose mortar and pestle set like KROK isn’t necessarily a cheap kitchen item, especially when you compare it to the cheap spice grinders on the market. However, investing in a proper mortar and pestle set will unlock a whole new skill tree, such as preparing Mexican salsas, Thai curry pastes, and other delicious recipes from all over the world.
Plus, a granite set of mortar and pestle, instead of one made of marble or terra cotta, is a very sturdy kitchen tool that’s more likely to withstand multiple generations in your family.
Over and Out!
Spice grinders are standard kitchen tools that let you grind whole spices into dust on the spot. But they are not the best tool if you want to squeeze as much flavor and aroma as you can from your delicious spices.
The only way to burst open the aromatic oil cells in the spices is by pounding them on a hard surface. And for that, you need a good mortar and pestle set. Once you get the taste of mixing your own freshly ground spice blends, pastes, and salad dressings, you won’t be able to give up on this granite duo.