How to Season a New Mortar and Pestle

A green marble mortar and pestle

A mortar and pestle is a beneficial appliance in a homestead kitchen or herbal apothecary. A new mortar and pestle needs to be seasoned before its first use. Learn about the types and uses of mortar and pestle sets.

How to season a new mortar and pestle

Updated March 2022

When I made my own cayenne powder, I had trouble making a powder with the electric coffee grinder I was using. A reader sent me an email, saying that she uses a mortar and pestle to grind up her cayenne peppers.

From that moment, I wanted my own mortar and pestle. 

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Mortar and pestle sets are very versatile and non-electric. They can grind just about anything. And you can make delicious guacamole in them. That alone was a great reason to own one!

What is a mortar and pestle?

A mortar and pestle is a set of two tools - two of the most ancient tools that are still used in our modern times.

The mortar is a bowl usually made of stone, porcelain, marble or stainless steel. The pestle is a simple club-shaped "pounder," most often made from the same material as the mortar.

Probably back in the ancient world the mortar was an indented stone or a hollowed-out piece of wood. The pestle might have been a rock. 

To use these tools, someone would place a handful of grain perhaps, or some other food, and then grind and pound it with the pestle, changing the texture into something more edible, such as a powder, paste, liquid or other substance.

If you are picturing a grindstone or millstones, you are on the right track. These were similar tools that were powered by water or a donkey walking round and round to turn the stones, but the end result was the same: changing the texture of food by stamping, crushing, pulverizing or grinding.

A mortar and pestle uses hand power instead of animal or water power. They aren't as fast or as easy as a food processor, and they don't use electricity - but for some foods you don't want the texture that a food processor creates - you want the traditional texture created by a mortar and pestle.

The uses of a mortar and pestle

A mortar and pestle isn't used exclusively in the kitchen; they are also used in the laboratory and to prepare herbs for medicinal use.

If you intend to use yours to prepare traditional salsa or guacamole, you'd want to use a special type of mortar and pestle known as a molcajete. This larger version is made from volcanic stone. 

All the nooks and crannies of the stone help to smash and mix the traditional ingredients used in salsa and guacamole to tasty perfection.

However, those same nooks and crannies can hold the strong flavors of the ingredients you used. 

It's not a bad idea to have two - or even more, depending on how you plan to use them. If you make guacamole and salsa, you might want a separate mortar and pestle so that the stronger herbs and seeds you grind won't flavor the more delicate dishes in an odd way.

The more traditional mortar and pestle, used for herbs and other ingredients, is smaller in size, and although it is rough inside the bowl, it isn't as rough as the volcanic stone molcajete and is easier to clean. 

Never use soap to clean a mortar and pestle or a molcajete. Simply rinse and wipe, then allow to dry.

So when I decided I needed a mortar and pestle,  I added it to the Christmas wish list our children requested. Evidently they didn't discuss it among themselves because I ended up with two! 

One set is made from marble and is smaller for grinding herbs, spices, seeds and so on, and the other is a molcahete made of granite and is larger, perfect for guacamole and salsa. 

Green marble mortar and pestle on a wooden counter.

How to season a mortar and pestle

Before using, a new mortar and pestle needs to be seasoned, like a new cast iron pan needs to be seasoned. The actual process is different but they both need to be seasoned, or prepared, before they are used for the first time.

I'm using the green marble mortar and pestle in these photos.

The unglazed inside of a mortar and pestle

"Seasoning" a new mortar and pestle set removes the stone grit from the inside. 

The interior surface is left rough and unpolished so the items you're grinding can "grab" the bottom and sides and not jump out of the bowl. You need some "tooth" to grab the leaves, nuts, or whatever or else they'd simply slide all over the place.

But without seasoning your set first, you'll end up with fine grit in your food. Ick.

First, wash the mortar with hot water and let it air dry. Never use soap or it will flavor your food.

Seasoning a marble mortar and pestle with uncooked rice

There are several recommended ways to season a new mortar and pestle.


The first step is to add some water to the bowl, wetting the sides and bottom. 

Next, add a small handful of uncooked white rice. Use the pestle to grind the rice against all inner surfaces of the mortar bowl.

You may notice eventually that the rice has become rather "dirty" from the rock dust inside. That's exactly what it's supposed to do. The goal is to remove that rock dust from the inside of the mortar. 

Empty out the powdery rice and add another handful, and grind it with the pestle again. You may need to do this several times, and it you'll need to devote some time and wrist power to this process.

You can add a little bit of water so the rice won't jump out of the mortar.

A woman's hand using a mortar and pestle to grind uncooked rice.

When the powdered rice is clean and free of color and grit, you can move on to the second step in the seasoning process.

Grind up several cloves of garlic with the pestle, then add a teaspoon of salt and another of sugar, and finally some peppercorns. Mash this all up into a smooth paste and rub it around the inside of the mortar. 

Let it set for about thirty minutes, then wash it out with hot water and let it air dry. Your mortar and pestle are now ready to use.

Uses for a mortar and pestle

What can you do with a mortar and pestle? Here are some ways I've used mine:

Make finer salt - we buy Himalayan pink salt, and sometimes sea salt, to use in our kitchen - it tastes so much saltier, and is better for you too. The flakes can be large though, and don't shake out of a salt shaker very well. Add a handful of salt to the mortar and grind it into finer salt.

Cracked pepper or peppercorns - some delicious recipes call for cracked peppercorns. Add a tablespoon of peppercorns to your mortar and pestle and pound them into cracked pepper flakes.

Grind herbs and spices - it's easy to grind a small amount of an herb with a mortar and pestle. Those little bottles of ground spices you buy at the store don't hold a candle to spices you can grind fresh! Try these:

  • Cardamom
  • Celery seeds
  • Cloves
  • Cumin seeds
  • Fennel seeds
  • Mustard seed - years ago I wrote a post about how to make mustard from scratch, but I used pre-ground powders. I can only image how much better it would taste using freshly-ground spices!
  • I've also been making my own taco and chili seasonings for years, using ground spices. I'm going to start making them with fresh-ground spices too.

Garlic paste - use the mortar and pestle to smash garlic cloves and then grind them into a smooth paste. You can add a bit of salt, which works as an abrasive.

Make pesto - this might have been the first use you thought of! No wonder, since the word "pesto" in Italian cuisine means "created with the pestle."

Add basil leaves and a bit of salt to the garlic paste, then smash and grind it all together with the pestle. The salt acts as an abrasive and makes the grinding (or "smushing") easier. Add pine nuts, a bit of olive oil, and a little Parmesan cheese for delicious pesto.

Muddle fruit for drinks - some drinks, such as mojitos, are made with "muddled" mint leaves. Smash some cherries and oranges for an old-fashioned cocktail. For a non-alcoholic drink, mash some spearmint leaves to add to sweet iced tea. 

In this instance, the fruit or leaves are usually "muddled" in the glass or in a metal cocktail shaker, so if you use your pestle in a glass vessel, be careful not to break the glass!

What else can you make with a mortar and pestle? Here are a few more ideas.

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Did you know a new mortar and pestle needs to be seasoned? Here's how to do it.


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