Why season/condition a new granite mortar and pestle with garlic?
July 24, 2020 6:16 PM   Subscribe

I just bought a new granite mortar and pestle. All the instructions for how to season it that I can find (including the instructions that came with it) describe rinsing it with water then grinding uncooked rice 2-3 times until it finishes white, then a garlic clove then usually salt, pepper, and cumin. But I can't find out any information on why - what is the function of everything after the rice?

It will be pretty much devoted to grinding dried herbs/spices/seeds, and maybe the occasional fresh herb. I don't plan to use it for making sauces, guacamole, etc.

I understand that the initial scrubbing in water and grinding the rice helps prepare the vessel by knocking off any fragile stone points and cleaning out dust leftover from its manufacture, that part is usually explained and makes sense.

Primary question: I don't understand the purpose of the other stuff as part of the preparation process, for which I've found no explanation anywhere so far. Is there some sort of physical/mechanical benefit to them - for example, I don't know, sealing up the pores to keep future materials from gunking them up? (it seems to me that fresh garlic would gunk them up from the get-go) Or do they just serve to "flavor" the mortar so that whatever I end up making in it will theoretically pick up a nuance of those ground-in flavors?

Secondary question: I expect to be grinding different herb/spice combinations from different cuisines (ex. N. American/European/Latin American/Asian/etc.). I'd like to avoid carrying strong flavors over to my next combination. Is this possible? Do I need to plan on having a separate mortar and pestle for each seasoning tradition?
posted by Greg_Ace to Food & Drink (9 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Tertiary question: Any other recomendations for setting up a mortar and pestle to be its best self?
posted by Greg_Ace at 6:22 PM on July 24, 2020

I have no scientific evidence for this, my father was a Chef & the first time I got a mortar & pestle he told me to do what you're doing. He said it was something to do with the oils absorbing into the granite. I don't know why that would be a thing though so have no idea how much of it is an old wives tale or not.
posted by wwax at 6:25 PM on July 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

Seems like a bit of superstition mixed with some useful lore to me. The oils in those ingredients will polymerise as you work them in and form a non-stick barrier over time, similar to seasoning a pan. There might be a concretizing effect from small bits of the spices.

The exact order may well be arbitrary, but to my eye the general method and approach is plausibly sound. I haven’t used this exact method but my older mortars-and-pestle are smoother and glossier than my newer ones.
posted by SaltySalticid at 6:35 PM on July 24, 2020

Hi, I am a rock collector and also the owner of 2 mortar and pestles and I can say this sounds like a lot of fal-de-ra. Just use it as you wish and never mind it again. Especially as it relates to granite, they use it as counter tops and you need never worry again about garlic and all that stuff. FFS.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 10:28 PM on July 24, 2020 [4 favorites]

Just spitballing here... but maybe the garlic step has more than one purpose? When crushed, garlic has a lot of antimicrobial properties -- it's anti bacterial/fungal/viral. Maybe this step is also a natural way to reduce pathogens that have come in contact with it up to that point.
posted by pdxhiker at 11:21 PM on July 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

After I posted this I dug deeper and eventually learned that the garlic, etc. are optional flavoring agents rather than conferring any physical benefit, and that different cuisines use different initial seasonings.

I was hoping to get more hard experiential or scientific evidence, but I'm hungry and ready to start grinding some spices!
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:36 AM on July 25, 2020

For your last question-- " I'd like to avoid carrying strong flavors over to my next combination. Is this possible?"-- get a box of coarse sea salt (or flakey kosher salt, like Diamond Crystal) and grind up some salt in between your spice mixtures. The salt will absorb the previous spices and give you a more neutral field for your next mixture. Wipe with a slightly damp paper towel after the salt. For some really pungent spices (anything with dried or especially fresh turmeric) wash with soap & water, dry thoroughly, grind salt, wipe down. Have fun with your new equipment!
posted by winesong at 10:52 AM on July 25, 2020 [2 favorites]

I would never do this. It's hard to get garlic smell out of stuff. You may want to use that mortar & pestle for grinding sweet spices - allspice berries, whole cloves, cinnamon sticks - and even a hint of garlic would be a big problem.

Just clean it with regular dish soap and a scrubby thing and you'll be fine. Granite should not soak anything up and if it's dark granite you won't even see the stains from turmeric. Enjoy.
posted by fingersandtoes at 4:16 PM on July 25, 2020 [1 favorite]

Came to suggest grinding coarse sea salt in it after use as mentioned above - I grind a lot of pretty intense aromatics and this reduces cross-flavoring quite a bit.

The other stuff is probably hoo-haw. But hey, if you like those flavors it probably won't hurt anything.
posted by aspersioncast at 5:53 PM on July 25, 2020

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