Every year, more efficient machines are made for the kitchen: faster blenders, tougher food processors, spatulas made to withstand the heat of spurting hot caramel.
But nothing we've invented in the past 100 years can produce a better-tasting sauce than the ancient-looking granite pair, the mortar and the pestle, squatting on your countertop. Shiny electric machines may do it quicker, but a hollowed-out rock and its blunt pounder do it better.
If you're going to compare the mortar and pestle (and the large stone or granite ones are the best) with its contemporary equivalent, the food processor, the machine will win on some counts: speed and ease, for one thing. Cleaning time? If you include the minute for dragging it out and the time spent picking fibers of raw garlic from the serrated blade, I would say it's a toss-up.
When you want to pulverize a small amount of spice (a little black pepper, for example), a mortar and pestle works much better than a spice grinder. And on taste, arguably the most important aspect of cooking, the stone set often wins by a nose.
For sheer cooking pleasure, on that rare occasion when engaging in a repetitive mindless action (whether podding peas, skimming broth or pounding garlic) causes the present moment to hang in suspension and yourself to fall into a reverie, the mortar and the pestle blows all modern implements out of the water.
Yet when I set out to make all of my favorites sauces the old-fashioned way in a mortar and pestle, I wasn't too happy. My first aioli separated. I fixed it, but sat through dinner beneath a black-mood cloud, undone by a broken sauce but loath to admit it.
Take your time
My mind was set on the wrong tempo. Working in the mortar brings you into instant contact with old kitchen wisdom, the details we've forgotten, and advice from the elders is non-negotiable for a reason. The grandmothers were not kidding: Crush the garlic fully with the salt first and add the oil drop ... by ... drop.
I think that you can get away with "dribble by dribble," but, still, the process should be slow. When I turned my full attention to the sauce, the results were fantastic, proving that modernity has nothing on an aioli made the old-fashioned way. What a revelation.
The flavor of the garlic when pounded to a saucy purée looms large, as do the nuances of the olive oil. And the handmade sauce is denser and more golden than aiolis I've made in my food processor. In fact, those should really be called garlic mayonnaises; only after making it by hand do I feel like I've really made an aioli.
You can certainly make a much better-tasting green herb sauce in the mortar. Case in point: an experiment that a sous chef put on for me and my fellow cold-station cooks during my first year of cooking. With an exhausted sigh, he tossed my plastic container of olive-green basil pesto into the garbage, dragged out the large granite mortar and pestle, and started pounding garlic into basil.
A difference in style
We saw a funny thing happening to the pounded pesto: The crushing action caused the oils in the separate ingredients to meld completely (as opposed to being cut finely together in the food processor), making for a much tighter weave of ingredients. Not only was the handmade pesto greener and more finely puréed, but it tasted brighter, and more like fresh basil, than our trashed food processor version.
Chimichurri, too -- a pungent, vinegary herb sauce with Argentinian origins, meant for serving with barbecued meats -- exits the mortar in much greener and tastier condition than the same sauce made in the food processor. My last batch held onto its green color for days in the refrigerator and proved to be a surprisingly vibrant sauce for pasta.
And finally, the hazelnut praline should cause everyone who doesn't have a mortar and pestle to run out and find one. Again, it can be made more quickly in a food processor, but it occurred to me that pressing the "on" button burns very few calories while pounding hazelnuts and caramel into praline nut butter surely must work off a few -- hopefully enough to bank for the luscious hazelnut praline itself, the heavenly offspring of fresh peanut butter and toffee, with an addictive underbelly of salty, buttery hazelnut. I'm usually all for time-saving, but this is one condiment worthy of exertion.
Amy Thielen is a chef and writer who divides her time between Two Inlets, Minn., and New York City.