Working with Spices
Pestal & Mortar or What?
One of the key tools every home cook should have is a pestal & mortar. If you can afford it, buy a big one! You’ll be glad of it when you’re cooking for more than two people or you like to bulk cook for the freezer!
Pestal & mortars made of stone such as granite will be better. I’ve seen people use wooden ones, and I’m not sure you’ll get great results with those, but do tell me if I’m wrong! The obvious downside with a granite mortar is it’s heavy! But once you’ve got it home and in your kitchen, there it’ll stay!
But pestal & mortars aren’t for everyone, and you might prefer some alternatives. Here are some ideas for you:
- Dry spices can be ground really effectively in a coffee bean grinder! The only snag is that once you’ve done this, you can kiss goodbye to ever grinding coffee in it again! The spice aroma will stay in that grinder forever more.
- Coffee grinders aren’t the best for crushing wet spices such as garlic, fresh ginger, chilli etc. For that you need to have hand-held blender. There are definite disadvantages of processing your wet spices like this, and I’ll explain that in a moment
- Not easy to get hold of, unless you live in Asia, but another alternative is a wet grinder. These mimic the action of a pestal & mortar. It’s basically a blender that uses stones rather than blades, and they are perfect for restaurants where large volumes of spices need to be ground down regularly.
Whole or Ready-Ground Spices?
I personally think it is better to keep your spices in their whole form wherever possible. There are a number of spices that you can buy quite easily in most British supermarkets this way:
- Coriander seeds
- Fennel seeds
- Fenugreek seeds
- Star anise
Whole spices keep longer, but they’re less convenient, because you have to process them before you start cooking. This usually involves roasting them in a dry pan for a few minutes until they become fragrant and slightly toasted, and then pounding them into a powder with a pestal and mortar.
Pestal & Mortar vs. Hand-Held Blender
Processing your wet spices such as ginger, garlic, chilli among others is much easier in a hand-held blender. And you can be sure that you’ll get a decent paste.
However, blenders use blades, which cut the fibres. A pestal & mortar uses a crushing action, smashing the cells to smithereens!
But so what? Well, it does have a difference on flavour! I promise you, I don’t know the exact science behind this and when I do, I’ll be sure to tell you, but grinding your wet spices with the power of your biceps really makes the flavours pop!
I didn’t believe it until I made two identical curries, one with the blender, one with the mortar. I thought the blended spices made the curry a bit bland. I couldn’t understand it – it had a tonne of spices, where was the flavour?
The curry made with sweat, blood and tears was a symphony of flavours in my mouth – it’s like the gods rewarded me for my efforts.
But what if you can’t grind? Maybe you tire too quickly. Well, starting the process in the pestal & mortar and then finishing in a hand-held blender does make a better paste than just using a blender alone!.
Or treat yourself to an electric wet grinder!
Cleaning a Coffee Grinder
If you decide that you’re going to have a coffee grinder specifically for grinding your spices, then you’ll need to clean it. Some people use dry bread to get under the blades and clean out the spice residue. You simply put the bread in the grinder, blitz it and empty it out.
Others use bicarbonate of soda, but this is messy.
I simply mix some carbonate of soda with water, soak some bread, blitz it. Get as much of it out as I can, then use very stale bread, blitz that and then use a pastry brush to brush out the bits. Smell gone.
Well – I did that once! I thought it was such a faff, I went back to using the pestal & mortar! For me, it wins every time and for the little bit of extra work, it’s worth it.