Laboratory mortar: characteristics, functions, uses

The word ‘mortar’ derives from the Latin word “mortarium”, which means “receptacle to hit” or “product of grinding or hitting”. The Latin “pistillum”, in turn, means “crusher.” Below is an image of what this object looks like that is symbolic in many laboratories and kitchens.

Researcher using a pestle mortar

The mortars have been made of stone, basalt, wood, ceramic and metal, depending on the thickness of the wall of use. They have also been made in different ways. Therefore, the mortars and their designs are a reflection of the religious or gastronomic customs of the peoples.


Mortar and pistil, 12,500–9500 BC. C. Source: Gary Todd / CC0

The man used mortar made of stone from the Upper Paleolithic and Neolithic, finding samples of mortars made in the Kebaran culture (22000-18000 BC). Meanwhile, in Southwest Asia, mortars made with an age of 35,000 years BC have been found.

The indigenous people of America used concavities made in the rocks as mortars to grind corn. In some regions of America, today, mortars made with the wood of the stems of trees are used to husk and grind corn.

Laboratory mortar characteristics

Mortar and pistil illustration. Source: DataBase Center for Life Science (DBCLS) / CC BY (


In schematic form, a mortar is made up of a kind of conical vessel where the material to be crushed or ground is placed. The mortar container usually has a base in the shape of a circumference, although some also have a kind of spout at its upper end to pour its contents.


The mortar also has a solid object: the mallet or pistil, which fulfills the function of crushing the material against the wall of the mortar. The mallet can be tubular in shape, or narrower in its grip and larger in diameter at the end used to crush the material (like the one in the image).


Mortar can be made from various materials, including: stone, wood, metal, or ceramic. The material from which the mortar is made can be related to its intended use. For example, the mortar used in the pharmacy is generally ceramic.

Varied shapes

Also, the mortar can vary from the classic way. In ancient Ecuador (3800 years BC), there were mortars in the shape of animals that had a ceremonial function. And in the Philippines, large wooden mortars shaped like boats are used for husking rice.


Two mortars and their pistils of different shapes and colors. Source: Nikodem Nijaki / CC BY-SA (

Teaching and research laboratories

The mortar is used for the crushing of rocky materials, achieving its pulverization. This facilitates the extraction of the minerals present in the sample, generally through the use of acids. Also, it is used in the synthesis of compounds in solid state chemistry .


Mortar is used to grind and mix substances to produce medicines. This procedure was already known to the Romans, as pointed out by the poet Juvenal and the Egyptian papyrus Ebers (1550 BC). The mortar, along with the mallet, is one of the best-known symbols in pharmacology.

In pharmacy, gray agate mortar is recommended, which is used to crush materials with a hardness lower than 7 on the Mohs scale.

Seed grinding and hulling

Through the use of mortars, seeds can be ground to produce powder. In the case of corn, a paste is produced, known in many places as corn dough. The mortar and pestle, together with the quern saddle, a round stone that is rubbed on a stone bed, constituted the first grinding medium.

Different forms of mortars are also used to remove the husk or shells from the seeds; such is the case of rice and corn. This process is called dehulling the seeds.

Food processing

Mortar is used in the preparation of certain foods such as pesto. It is also used in meat processing by grinding and grinding. It is also used in the mixture of whole species for the production of certain flavors, as well as in the preparation of condiments.

When preparing food, it is recommended to use ceramic and graphite mortars, which are easy to wash and do not retain flavors. However, in the kitchen, wooden mortars are mainly used, which have the disadvantage that their porosity favors the impregnation of flavors.

Examples of uses


Agate mortar is used in solid state syntheses. The reagents are placed in the mortar and ground manually with the pestle or pistil. Acetone or alcohol is occasionally added to facilitate grinding. Grinding is continued until the mixture is homogeneous.

The mortar is used in DNA extraction by cryogenic grinding. Mortar is also used as a substitute for the automatic grinder when the grinding medium is acidic or volatile, as it can reduce the half life of the grinder.


The mortar is used to grind the tablets and promote the absorption of their components when they are ingested or when they are used in parenteral nutrition. In addition, it is a procedure used to establish the content of the tablets as a quality control.

Seed grinding and hulling

The American Indians ground corn using concavities that they dug into rocks as mortars. Also, African and American peoples use tree trunks to build large mortars used for husking maize.

These mortars are called a pestle, and are generally used simultaneously by more than one person. The pestles or mallets are also made of wood.

Food processing

In the Middle East, large mortars are used to mince and grind meat, in order to make “Kibbeh”. The Aztecs and Mayans used a basalt mortar, known as mojalcete, which is still used in Mexican cuisine. In India, mortars are used to grind and mix spices.

The mortar allows you to crush and mix whole species, as well as grind the black pepper to use it as fresh as possible. A mixture of freshly roasted fennel seeds is mixed and crushed in a mortar along with cumin, coriander and black pepper for food seasoning.

The spicy and smoked chai is made in a mortar, mixing cardamom, cloves, cinnamon and black pepper.

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