Indian Spices and the Mortar and Pestle
When you cook Indian food, you work with whole spices, and when you have whole spices on hand, nothing beats a mortar and pestle. Whole spices are excellent because they hold onto the volatile oils that sometimes evaporate once a spice has been ground and then stored. Where a spice grinder is great for processing larger quantities of whole spices into a powder, the mortar and pestle works extremely well for coarsely grinding spices for meals serving 4-10 people.
Selecting a Mortar and Pestle
The best mortar and pestle for small amounts of whole spice are made of stone. If you're pounding a harder spice like fenugreek seeds or anise, stone is better because it is heavier and harder. We have had better luck with mortar that is taller and rounder as opposed to one that is flatter and shallower. This makes it less likely that whole or partially crushed seeds come flying out.
Mortar/Pestle Spice Grinding Technique
For hard seeds, and woody spices, you generally have to pound the spice first, and sometimes that means finding the whole pieces and aiming for them. Generally, you can bring the pestle down along the side of the mortar, shepherding the whole pieces toward the middle and then pounding them there.
Once they've been pounded to a coarse powder, then you can grind them by moving the pestle clockwise or counter clockwise to grind your spices up finer.
Only with a mortar and pestle do you have absolute control over the size of your grains and the consistency of your end result.
What Spices to use with a Mortar and Pestle
Seeds like anise, black pepper, cumin, cardamom, and fenugreek, are great to pound just prior to adding to your oil or your frying onion.
One Warning about Spices in Mortar and Pestles
Whenever you pound a spice in a mortar and pestle, you're losing some of the spice's oil. Keeping spices whole and using them as soon as possible is the best way to maximize flavour. That's why a lot of Indian cooks use whole spices in the first stage of cooking. If you're using a mortar and pestle, consider leaving your spices as a coarse powder to keep more of their oils.