Essential Tools

The Appliance That Will Make You Feel Ambitious (Even If You're Really Feeling Lazy)

April 13, 2016

There was a time not long ago when just one glance through Yotam Ottolenghi's Black Pepper Tofu* sent me into a cold sweat.

Five tablespoons of coarsely ground black pepper, demands this recipe, with no explanation and no apology. But Yotam! If I were to make the attempt with a mortar and pestle, it would nearly kill me. Please, just give me the fried tofu and let me go to sleep.

Soon, you'll be reduced to dust. Photo by James Ransom

In theory, it's satisfying—to take the pestle to the mortar (...or is the mortar to the pestle? Nope, nope, nope—the pestle to the mortar!) and smash and smash and think of all the stuff that makes me anxious with the hope that it'll mean less teeth-grinding later that night.

But most of the time, any brawn from the day has wilted to resignation by the time I'm ready to make dinner. I'd rather work neatly and efficiently—and investing in a $20 coffee grinder-cum-spice grinder made that (more) possible.

With electric power on my side, five tablespoons of freshly ground black pepper is a half-marathon rather than a 100-mile Saharan sprint. Shuttle spices to grinder (use a funnel, even); fasten the plastic top; whir, whir, whir until I've the ammo bound to make all of my food taste better! faster! stronger! The spice grinder has energy even—and always—when I do not.

Two of my great loves: spice grinder, curry leaves. Photo by James Ransom

Here's the thing about pre-ground spices (which I do buy, but with a heavy heart):

  • They do not stay fresh for as long (and that's assuming they were fresh to begin with) and there's less assurance of their quality.
  • You don't even have the opportunity to customize your curry powder (you know, should you choose to do so).
  • And the flavor is simply not as good. In Cook's Illustrated's blind taste test of cardamom-flavored pound cakes and of chutneys made with cumin, coriander, and cardamom, in which they compared fresh-ground and pre-gound supermarket jars side by side, the "fresh-ground spices won a decisive victory for their superior aroma, vibrancy, and roundness of flavor."
Photo by James Ransom

So, freshly ground spices it is. Fine. Yes. But, call me a loafer, if I'm going to make that kind of effort, I want to do it in the least taxing way possible. That is, no manual labor.

And I do not feel bad about this. The Madhur Jaffrey devotes a coffee grinder for pulverizing spices, and Indian-American cook Aarti Sequeira lists the tool as one of five things to make a kitchen more Indian. She uses a spice grinder for fine-ground masalas and saves the mortar and pestle for bashing garlic and ginger (or when she's feeling old-fashioned).

And your spice grinder doesn't know the difference between spices and the other stuff you might want to pulverize when you're feeling the pull of both ambition and your pajamas.

It's happy to grind coffee beans (that's the job I give mine most of the time) and nuts (for dukkah!) and so many sesame seeds (when black sesame cake calls). Or dried herbs (for stews or breading or marinades) or lavender, vanilla beans, and citrus zest (for cakes and puddings and ice creams). And it can even grind up sugar.

Any quantity that seems too small for a full-sized food processor—where the blade might spin 'round and 'round without making contact with the scant amount of coriander seeds—that's where your spice grinder will swoop in to save the day. (Do know that when seeking out a grinder, you should consider its speed, the sharpness of the blade, and where that blade sits in relation to the bowl).

Good as new! Photo by James Ransom

Clean your spice grinder with rice if you haven't devoted your electric grinder to one particular task—it will absorb the oily scents of whatever you've ground last, making it less likely that you'll end up with curry-flavored coffee or coffee-flavored sesame.

Though maybe that's how great flavor combinations are invented. But that sounds like a project for another, more ambitious night. For now, stick with the Black Pepper Tofu—you (and your spice grinder) have got this!

It's at your service for all tasks big and small:

Or perhaps you are braver and stronger than I?

*Note: Even with a spice grinder, this recipe is no small task. Prepare yourself—mentally, physically, emotionally—to chop shallots, chiles, garlic, ginger, and spring onions for many hours. But get a spice grinder and at least you won't have to grind the pepper by hand!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Valentina | The Blue Bride
    Valentina | The Blue Bride
  • Caroline Lange
    Caroline Lange
I used to work at Food52. I'm probably the person who picked all of the cookie dough out of the cookie dough ice cream.


Valentina |. April 13, 2016
The grinder in the photos, which brand is it?
Caroline L. April 13, 2016
Hi Valentina, it's a KRUPS!