When we think of a mortar and pestle, the image of a bowl and round ended pestle come to mind. You can find them in any kitchen supply store, various shops, and online with relative ease. They can be made of materials ranging from carved wood, ceramic, glass, to various stones. It wasn’t always this way. In fact, some tribal cultures today don’t use the modern design. They still use the ancient methods of a large, flat stone and a smaller, more rounded stone to grind their grains and plant materials.
I’ve never owned a modern mortar and pestle. Instead, I have used the more rustic method. This style is free to obtain if you are willing to look while on a hike. Years ago, while living near a large stream, I found a thick, flat stone about the size of a dessert plate. It was smooth from the water current of the stream. There were also fist size river stones. One of the river stones, along with the flat stone would became my mortar and pestle.
I tested the strength of the rocks by hitting them together. I wanted stones that would not easily chip or crumble with impact. This would help insure that fine pieces of the stone would not mix into whatever items I were to grind on them. Once I knew they were both hard enough, I took them home.
To prepare the stones, I washed both thoroughly to remove any surface dirt from the stream bed. It also removed any chance of algae or other unwanted particles from remaining on the stones. Once clean and dry, they were ready for use.
Depending on the type of stone used, the flat stone can begin to develop a shallow depression or “bowl” appearance over the years from heavy use. In fact, many photos of early mortars show this. The constant grinding of dried grains into a meal of flour caused this. It wasn’t something that happened quickly, but over decades of use. Many of the oldest mortars were likely used for generations.
In my experience, there has been no measurable change in either stone. Each looks much like it did when I found them. They grind and mix as well as any modern set would do. I’ve thought about buying a modern version, but in all honesty, I doubt that it would get much use. My old one meets my needs.
I have thought about carving one from hardwood. To do this, I would take a piece of hardwood, about 5-6 inches thick, and the diameter I felt comfortable with. Using a carving chisel, dig out the bowl using shallow cuts. Gradually, slope the inside of the bowl until reaching the depth needed. Taking a lighter cut, remove any ridges in the bowl to smooth it out. Some wooden mortars are sanded smooth, but very fine texture left can help in the grinding process. Just smooth it out so the ridges cannot be seen. This will prevent any wood getting into your ground mixtures later. A short length of thick dowel with the sharp edges sanded smooth becomes the pestle. The wood can be “seasoned” with olive oil or other food grade oil and allowed to dry before use. This oil will seal the wood so that any juices from fresh plant material would absorb into the wood. Some may choose to use mineral oil for this, but make sure it is food safe if you plan to use it for herbs or spices you want to use in meal preps.
If you are lucky enough to have an old wooden dough bowl (sometimes called a trencher) that can become your mortar. They are well seasoned if you find an old one. The nice thing about the hardwood mortars is that you can use a river stone as a pestle with them as well.