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Mortar and pestle

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Mortar and pestle
A simple kitchen mortar and pestle
Other namesMortar grinding machine
Related itemsQuern-stone, mill
Women stomping in a large mortar in Guinea

Mortar and pestle is a set of 2 simple tools used since the Stone Age up to the present day to prepare ingredients or substances by crushing and grinding them into a fine paste or powder in the kitchen, laboratory, and pharmacy. The mortar (/ˈmɔːrtər/) is a bowl, typically made of hard wood, metal, ceramic, or hard stone, such as granite. The pestle (/ˈpɛsəl/, also US: /ˈpɛstəl/) is a blunt club-shaped object. The substance to be ground, which may be wet or dry, is placed in the mortar, where the pestle is pounding, pressing and rotating onto the substance, until the desired texture is achieved.

Mortars and pestles have been used in cooking since prehistory; they are also frequently associated with the profession of pharmacy due to their historical use in preparing medicines. Mortars and pestles can also be used in chemistry for pulverizing small amounts of chemicals; in arts and cosmetics for pulverizing pigments, binders, and other substances; in ceramics for making grog; in masonry and in other types of construction requiring pulverization of materials. In cooking, mortars and pestle are especially used to crush spices and to make pesto, and certain cocktails, such as the mojito, require the gentle crushing of sugar, ice and mint leaves in the glass with a pestle.

The use and invention of mortars and pestles seems related to the invention of quern-stones, using a similar principle of naturally indented, durable, hard stone bases and mallets of stone or wood to process food, clay, minerals or plant materials by crushing, pulverizing and grinding. The advantage of a mortar over a quern-stone is that the mortar is a deeper bowl containing the ground material without wasting and spilling it over the edges, like the material would be with flat grinding stones. Another advantage of mortars is that they can be made large enough for a person to stand upright next to them and use the combined strength of their entire upper body and gravity for better stamping. These large mortars also allow for several people with several pestles stamping the material in the same mortar faster and more efficient. Large mortars which a person can stand next to in an upright position are also physically easier to use and are more ergonomical by ensuring a better posture of the whole body than small querns, where a person has to crouch and use the uncomfortable, repetitive motion of hand grinding by sliding.

Mortars and pestles predate the invention of automatic blenders and grinders. Mortars and pestles can be described as having the function of small, mobile, hand operated mills, that don't require electricity or fuel to work.

The large wooden mortars and wooden pestles would predate and lead into the invention of butterchurns, since domestication of livestock and use of dairy came much later than the invention of mortar and pestle in the Neolithic. For churning, a wooden container would have the butter churned in it from cream or milk, with a long wooden stick, just like with wooden mortars and pestles.


Stone Age stone mortar and pestle, Kebaran culture, 22000–18000 BC
Rock mortars in Raqefet Cave, Israel, used for making beer during the Stone Age

Mortars and pestles have been invented in the Stone Age, when humans found that processing food and various other materials by grinding and crushing into smaller particles allowed for improved use and various advantages, such as hard grains could be cooked and digested easier if ground first, grog would vastly improve fired clay and larger objects such as blocks of salt would be much easier to handle and use when ground and pulverized into smaller pieces. Various stone mortars and pestles have been found, while wooden or clay ones would perish much easier during the course of time.

Scientists have found ancient mortars and pestles in Southwest Asia that date back to approximately 35000 BC.[1]

Stone mortars and pestles have also been used by the Kebaran culture (Levant with Sinai) from 22000–18000 BC to crush grains and other plant material. The Kebaran mortars that have been found are sculpted, slightly conical bowls of porous stone, and the pestles are made of a smoother type of stone.[2]

Another Stone Age example are the rock mortars in the Raqefet Cave in Israel, which are natural cavities in the cave floors, used by Late Natufians around 10000 BC to grind cereals for brewing beer in the cavities. These rock mortars are large enough for a person to stand upright by them and crush the cereals inside the cavity with a long wooden pestle.[3][4]

Ancient Africans, Sumerians, Egyptians, Polynesians, Native Americans, Chinese, Indians, Greeks, Celts and countless other people used mortars and pestles for processing materials and substances for cooking, arts, cosmetics, simple chemicals, ceramics and medicine.

Since the 14th century, bronze mortars became popular than stone ones, especially for use in alchemy and early chemistry. Bronze mortars would become more elaborate than stone ones, and had the advantage to be harder, and were easily cast with handles, knobs for handling and spouts for easier pouring. However, the big disadvantage was that bronze would react with acids and other chemicals and corrode easily. Since the late 17th century, glazed porcelain mortars became very useful, since they wouldn't be damaged by chemicals and would be easy to clean. [5]


The English word mortar derives from middle English morter, from old French mortier, from classical Latin mortarium, meaning, among several other usages, "receptacle for pounding" and "product of grinding or pounding"; perhaps related to Sanskrit "mrnati" - to crush, to bruise. [6]

The classical Latin pistillum, meaning "pounder", led to English pestle. Stemming from the pistillum, the word pesto in Italian cuisine means created with the pestle.

The Roman poet Juvenal applied both mortarium and pistillum to articles used in the preparation of drugs, reflecting the early use of the mortar and pestle as a symbol of a pharmacist or apothecary.[7]

Mortar as a synonym for cement in masonry came from the use of mortars and pestles to grind the materials for creating cement. The short bombard cannon was called "mortar" in French, because the first versions of these cannons looked like big metal mortars of the Medieval Ages and they required to be filled with gunpowder, like a mortar would be full of powdered material. [8]

Mortar and pestle in culture and symbols

Baba Yaga flies in her mortar, by Ivan Bilibin.

The antiquity of the mortar and pestle is well documented in early writing, such as the Egyptian Ebers Papyrus of ~1550 BC (the oldest preserved piece of medical literature) and the Old Testament (Numbers 11:8 and Proverbs 27:22).[9]

In Indian mythology, Samudra Manthan from Bhagavata Purana creates amrita, the nectar of immortality, by churning the ocean with a pestle.

Since medieval times, mortars would be placed or carved on the gravestones of pharmaceuts and doctors.

In Russian and Eastern European folklore, Baba Yaga is described and pictured as flying through the forest standing inside a large wooden mortar (stupa), holding the long wooden pestle in one hand to remove obstacles in front of her, and using the broom in her other hand to sweep and remove her traces behind her. This seems as a trace of some ancient rituals connecting the witch symbols of Baba Yaga with the use of mortars in alchemy, pharmacy and early chemistry, which was all seen as magic by uneducated people in Medieval Ages.

Modern pharmacies, especially in Germany, still use mortars and pestles as logos.



Iconic apothecary mortar and pestle, displaying the symbol for medical prescriptions.

Mortars and pestles were traditionally used in pharmacies to crush various ingredients prior to preparing an extemporaneous prescription. The mortar and pestle, with the Rod of Asclepius, the Green Cross, and others, is one of the most pervasive symbols of pharmacology,[10] along with the show globe.

For pharmaceutical use, the mortar and the head of the pestle are usually made of porcelain, while the handle of the pestle is made of wood. This is known as a Wedgwood mortar and pestle and originated in 1759. Today the act of mixing ingredients or reducing the particle size is known as trituration.

Mortars and pestles are also used as drug paraphernalia to grind up pills to speed up absorption when they are ingested, or in preparation for insufflation. To finely ground drugs, not available in liquid dosage form is used also if patients need artificial nutrition such as parenteral nutrition or by nasogastric tube.

Food preparation

A traditional Indian mortar and pestle.
Bangkang pinawa, literally "boat (bangka) for unpolished rice", an ancient mortar and pestle from the Philippines

Mortars are also used in cooking to prepare wet or oily ingredients such as guacamole, hummus and pesto (which derives its name from the pestle pounding), as well as grinding spices into powder. The molcajete, a version used by pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican cultures including the Aztec and Maya, stretching back several thousand years, is made of basalt and is used widely in Mexican cooking. Other Native American nations use mortars carved into the bedrock to grind acorns and other nuts. Many such depressions can be found in their territories.

In Japan, very large mortars are used with wooden mallets to prepare mochi. A regular sized Japanese mortar and pestle are called a suribachi and surikogi, respectively. Granite mortars and pestles are used in Southeast Asia,[11][12] as well as Pakistan and India. In India, it is used extensively to make spice mixtures for various delicacies as well as day to day dishes. With the advent of motorized grinders, use of the mortar and pestle has decreased. It is traditional in various Hindu ceremonies (such as weddings, and upanayanam) to crush turmeric in these mortars.

In Malay, it is known as batu lesung. Large stone mortars, with long (2–3 foot) wood pestles were used in West Asia to grind meat for a type of meatloaf, or kibbeh, as well as the hummus variety known as masabcha. In Indonesia and the Netherlands mortar is known as Cobek or Tjobek and pestle is known as Ulekan or Oelekan. The chobek is shaped lke a deep saucer or plate. The ulekan is either pistol-shaped or an ovoid. It is often used to make fresh sambal, a spicy chili condiment, hence the sambal ulek/oelek denote its process using pestle. It is also used to grind peanut and other ingredients to make peanut sauce for gado-gado.

Husking and dehulling

A large wooden mortar with a wooden pestle lying horizontally across the top.
A wooden mortar and pestle discovered at Briar's plantation in South Carolina. It was found in the rice loft and presumably used for dehulling.

Large mortars and pestles are still commonly used in developing countries to husk and dehull grain. These are usually made of wood, and operated by one or more persons.

In the Philippines, mortar and pestles are specifically associated with de-husking rice. A notable traditional mortar and pestle is the boat-shaped bangkang pinawa or bangkang pangpinawa, literally "boat (bangka) for unpolished rice", usually carved from a block of molave or other hardwood. It is pounded by two or three people. The name for the mortar, lusong, is the origin of the name of the largest island in the Philippines - Luzon.[13]

Large wooden mortars and pestles have been used to hull grain in West Africa for centuries. When enslaved Africans were brought to the Americas, they brought this technology—and knowledge of how to use it—with them. During the Middle Passage, some slave ships carried un-hulled rice, and enslaved African women were tasked with using mortars and pestles to prepare it for consumption. In both colonial North and South America, rice continued to be primarily milled by hand in this way until around the mid 1700s when mechanical mills became more widespread.[14]


Good mortar and pestle-making materials must be hard enough to crush the substance rather than be worn away by it. They cannot be too brittle either, or they will break during the pounding and grinding. The material should also be cohesive, so that small bits of the mortar or pestle do not mix in with the ingredients. Smooth and non-porous materials are chosen that will not absorb or trap the substances being ground.[15]

Women in Cape Verde using a large mortar with multiple pestles.

In food preparation, a rough or absorbent material may cause the strong flavour of a past ingredient to be tasted in food prepared later. Also, the food particles left in the mortar and on the pestle may support the growth of microorganisms. When dealing with medications, the previously prepared drugs may interact or mix, contaminating the currently used ingredients.

Rough ceramic mortar and pestle sets can be used to reduce substances to very fine powders, but stain easily and are brittle. Porcelain mortars are sometimes conditioned for use by grinding some sand to give them a rougher surface which helps to reduce the particle size. Glass mortars and pestles are fragile, but stain-resistant and suitable for use with liquids. However, they do not grind as finely as the ceramic type.

Other materials used include stone, often marble or agate, wood (highly absorbent), bamboo, iron, steel, brass, and basalt. Mortar and pestle sets made from the wood of old grape vines have proved reliable for grinding salt and pepper at the dinner table. Uncooked rice is sometimes ground in mortars to clean them. This process must be repeated until the rice comes out completely white. Some stones, such as molcajete, need to be seasoned first before use. Metal mortars are kept lightly oiled.

Automatic mortar grinder

Since the results obtained with hand grinding are not easily reproducible, most laboratories use automatic mortar grinders. Grinding time and pressure of the mortar can be adjusted and fixed, saving time and labor.

The first automatic Mortar Grinder was invented by F. Kurt Retsch in 1923 and named the "Retschmill" after him.[16]


The use of mortar and pestle, pestling, offers the advantage that the substance is crushed with low energy so that the substance will not warm up.


See also


  1. ^ Wright, K. (1991). "The Origins and Development of Ground Stone Assemblages in Late Pleistocene Southwest Asia" (PDF). Paléorient. 17 (1): 19–45. doi:10.3406/paleo.1991.4537. JSTOR 41492435.
  2. ^ Mellaart, James (1976), Neolithic of the Near East (Macmillan Publishers)
  3. ^ Metheny, Karen Bescherer; Beaudry, Mary C. (2015). Archaeology of Food: An Encyclopedia. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 46. ISBN 9780759123663.
  4. ^ Birch, Suzanne E. Pilaar (2018). Multispecies Archaeology. Routledge. p. 546. ISBN 9781317480648.
  5. ^ "History of Mortars".
  6. ^ "Sanskrit root of Mortar".
  7. ^ Satire VII line 170: et quae iam ueteres sanant mortaria caecos. (and the mortars that cure old blind men)
  8. ^ "Etymology of Mortar".
  9. ^ The mortar and pestle from the renaissance to the present
  10. ^ "Pharmaceutical Symbols". Museum of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society. Retrieved 28 March 2019.
  11. ^ Sukphisit, Suthon (2019-03-24). "The enduring symbol of Thai cuisine". Bangkok Post (B. Magazine). Retrieved 2019-03-24.
  12. ^ "The Mortar and Pestle in Thai Cuisine". Temple of Thai. Retrieved 3 December 2016.
  13. ^ Foreman, John (1892). The Philippine Islands: A Political, Geographical, Ethnographical, Social and Commercial History of the Philippine Archipelago, Embracing the Whole Period of Spanish Rule. New York: C. Scribner's Sons.
  14. ^ Carney, Judith A. (January 25, 2007). "With grains in her hair: rice in colonial Brazil". A Journal of Slave and Post-Slave Studies. 25 (1): 1-27. doi:10.1080/0144039042000220900.
  15. ^ "Kitchen Essentials for Southeast Asian Cooking Basic tools and equipment for cooking Southeast Asian food". about food. Section 2. Mortar and Pestle to Make the Best Spice Pastes. Retrieved 3 December 2016.CS1 maint: location (link)
  16. ^ "About Us: History". Retsch GmbH. Retrieved 19 January 2020.

External links