The Two Types of Thai Mortar and Pestle

Last Updated on July 25, 2022

If you look closely when the pestle hits the mortar when pounding some delicious pesto or authentic Thai green paste, you can see the cell walls bursting open, letting out the natural oil and flavor trapped inside. It’s not hard to imagine a slow-motion symphony of aromas gushing out of the veggies, herbs, and spices, creating a delightful paste, or maybe it’s just us.

Nevertheless, if you’ve ever had any paste or sauce made with a Thai mortar and pestle, you probably share our enthusiasm. Nothing beats this kitchen utensil when it comes to revealing all the aroma hidden in your ingredients.

The sets of mortar and pestle are universal tools you can find in almost any culture. Thai culture, for instance, puts the set of mortar and pestle, or khrok (ครก) and sak (สาก) as they’re called, on a pedestal. This tool is essential for many Thai-specific recipes, such as green papaya salad (sohm tahm) or the numerous variations of curry and chili pastes.

There are two main types of Thai mortar and pestle: a heavy stone mortar and pestle and a baked-clay mortar with a hardwood pestle. In this article, we’ll take a look at the advantages and disadvantages of both.

Granite Mortar and Pestle

Granite is a hard igneous rock that’s formed from magma. The content of granite rock is mostly coarse-grained quartz with some other minerals, the ratio of which determines the quality of the stone. As a rule of thumb, more quartz equals a stronger rock. And because it’s very hard and outlasts most other rocks, people have been using granite in construction and tool-making for a very long time.

The strongest suits of a granite mortar and pestle have to do with the properties of the rock. Thanks to its sturdiness, you can pound and smash with force, turning the mixture into a smooth paste. Other materials, such as clay, marble, or wood, aren’t as good at creating homogeneous mixtures.

Depending on the recipe, chefs will generally prefer a heavy, solid stone mortar, such as this KROK set, which allows you to pound vigorously without the risk of cracking the mortar in half. A heavy mortar with long walls is also safe from tipping over and slipping.

Glazed Terracotta Mortar With a Hardwood Pestle

Although you can use clay or glazed terracotta mortar to make delicious sauces, they won’t turn out as smooth as the ones made in a granite one. Because clay mortar and pestles aren’t as sturdy as the ones made of granite, you have to be careful not to pound using too much force. Plus, the wooden pestle requires a bit more care while storing, as mold can grow on it if it doesn’t dry properly.

This isn’t to say that these mortars are good for nothing. If it’s the texture you’re after, they will do the trick. In general, if you want to stamp the ingredients into a fine paste, what you need is a granite mortar and pestle. But if you want to bruise and mix the ingredients, then a terracotta mortar is what you need. If you start pounding raw papaya to death in a granite mortar, the end result won’t be very appetizing.

Moreover, a set of glazed terracotta mortar with a hardwood pestle is much more budget-friendly than its granite counterparts, and its dark brown surface will look great on your countertops.

How to Use a Mortar and Pestle

Only a set of mortar and pestle allows you to obtain certain textures and flavors while preserving colors, aromas, and freshness. The practicality and versatility of this utensil ensure the mortar never disappears from the kitchen despite the growing popularity of food processors and aids.

Crush, grind, pulverize, triturate… Depending on the ingredients you throw in the mortar — dry, wet, soft, hard — the force you apply, and your gesture, you can obtain a multitude of different textures ranging from powder to paste.

To make the best of a set of mortar and pestle, you should hold the mortar firmly and grind the ingredients with the pestle with repetitive movements of vertical percussion and circular friction. For seeds and spices, applying a more or less strong vertical percussion for seeds and spices will suffice, depending on the fineness you want to obtain. 

For wet mixtures like marinades and sauces like Mexican salsas, circular friction is the best to extract all the juices. The longer the friction time, the more infused the mixture will be. The repeated friction will emulsify all the aromas in the mixture. You have to master the right gesture and the strength to obtain the texture and taste you desire.

When you finish using your mortar and pestle, rinse them with warm water and air dry them after wiping off excess water. If they’re especially dirty, you can scrub them with a hard brush. However, using soap is not recommended because the porous texture of the mortars can absorb the scent. To learn more about taking care of this set of tools, check out How to Season Your Brand New Mortar and Pestle, and How to Clean a Mortar and Pestle.

Over and Out!

A set of good mortar and pestle unlocks a variety of recipes and a brand new way of preparing dishes. If the mortar and pestle remain a well-praised set of utensils among home cooks and chefs even today, that’s because — unlike kitchen robots and electrical equipment — the controlled action of the pestle, even though repeated many times, doesn’t heat up the ingredients and allows all the flavor of herbs, spices, and condiments to remain fresh.

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