Old Thing is New Again

I have written about my love of buying good-quality old kitchen equipment (and furniture and other such things) before, but it always bears repeating how much of a worthwhile undertaking shopping in second-hand stores is – not only because you can get absolutely amazing things at a steal of a price (plus the cleaning efforts if necessary which it isn’t always), but because anything purchased used is, in itself, carbon-neutral, especially if you don’t travel out of your way to get it. It is carbon-neutral because it is one less thing headed for landfill or garbage, and also one less thing which needs to be produced new so that you can buy it, with all the associated environmental impact not being there at all. In short, it’s great for you and your wallet, and great for the planet, and what’s not to like?

Oh you mean you want a shiny label and ability to brag about how much you paid for a thing? I suspect you may be here by accident, in which case, welcome, and read the paragraph above (and the rest below) about why you shouldn’t give a flying bleep about such things where it comes to kitchenware.

The reason I have bought the mortar although I already own a marble set, was because I have wanted a traditional Swedish iron one for a while – because compared to the typical shallow marble or granite type, it is deep, narrow, has a really heavy pestle (it’s cast iron, duh), and I can actually bang on things in it without them flying out of the bowl, or worrying about cracking it, which makes it one hell of a lot more useful for crushing a spice mix than my shallow marble one – that one is better for grinding things such as salt, so these two aren’t actually the same tool. I could have bought a new one (Skeppshult make a gorgeous one that’s very similar to the one I bought), but theirs will easily run you around 100€ (that’s $116 at the time of writing) before shipping (and they aren’t lightweight items), and I don’t know about you, but it’s a little too much for my taste for a unitasker kitchen toy, even if it’s a unitasker I love, will use, and want to own. This isn’t a slur on Skeppshult – their quality is excellent, and I am rather happy to own several of their items of cookware which are worth the full price (if you can’t get them used, in which case you should – they are more or less indestructible).

Luckily, I know that this type of mortar has been in use in Scandinavia for ages, so all I had to do is keep my eyes peeled for one (I visit second hand stores a lot), and it’d make its way to me sooner or later – and this summer, it did. In fact, when I came by one of my favorite Stockholm second-hand stores, they had not one but three of them on display for me to choose from, all in a decent range of 15-20€ a piece, in various sizes and states of cleanliness. None of them were in awful condition, so I just picked the one of the size and shape I liked (as it turns out, the classic that Skeppshult are making a variant of – for good reason), we paid for it, and it was stuck in my backpack to haul around the rest of the day as we walked around Stockholm in blistering heat (a rather nice way to get your cardio with weights if I do say so myself).

Then we came home, and unpacked, and had guests, and for a while it was too hot to do much of anything other than swim in the lake. Finally, the rain we have sorely needed has come – it’s been raining at least a little daily since it started, the air has cooled to a reasonable temperature, T started to work again after vacation, and I mustered the energy for the elbow grease required to undertake a few small household projects. I admit that in my zeal to clean the mortar up I entirely forgot to take a ‘before’ photo, so you’ll have to do with my words instead – it was covered in decades’, if not over a century’s (may well be that long or longer), worth of grime and gods only know what else, with a bit (not too much) rust thrown in, so it was brown-black with a few rust spots. Not pretty, and not really very sanitary either, but it wasn’t a horrid case like some old cast iron pans which are covered in lumpy old seasoning and rust are, so all it needed was a good cleaning – and here’s how to do that.

If your cast iron is not seasoned, but rusted, you can wash it in soapy water and then soak it in vinegar overnight (not longer, as vinegar can cause pitting if iron is soaked too long), then proceed as mentioned below. My mortar wasn’t particularly rusty, it was just well and truly filthy, with the ancient filth rubbed into the iron ridges of its inner surface. Not to worry though, because cast iron is a fantastically tough material (provided you know its limitations), and is one of the few things in your kitchen that you can truly and safely clean using steel wool. So I grabbed my pack of pre-soaped steel wool (a wonderful item every kitchen should have – I am in no way affiliated with the Scandi shop, it was just a good way to link to the product in English!), a jar of baking soda (not baking powder!), dish liquid, and went to the sink to scrub.

To clean off the grime, I first washed the mortar in hot water with regular dish liquid – it helps de-grease the surface to facilitate the scrubbing off of rust and other whatever later – then I got the steel wool wet (mine came pre-soaped with strong lye soap) and gave the iron several rounds of going-over. Initially, the foam was brown (ew!), so I would rinse and scrub and rinse and scrub, and added some dish liquid (which isn’t soap – it’s a chemical detergent so removes fat better, but doesn’t do much for rust), and scrubbed some more. Then, when only some stains remained, I dumped in a good quantity of baking soda, and used the wet steel wool to work it into a foamy paste and scrub yet some more. (Did I mention elbow grease? You need that.) It took 3 changes of baking soda until it stopped turning brown on scrubbing, at which point I gave it another rinse and a wash with the rough side of dish sponge and dish liquid, rinsed, took a pretty picture, and put it into the oven for half an hour to dry (after toweling it thoroughly first) – naked cast iron can rust just from contact with damp air, so you must oil or season it (depending on the item), and before you can do that, you must heat it for at least half an hour to make sure that the water has evaporated out of it – cast iron is porous, and you really don’t want things to start rusting once you got the oil on it and want to use the thing.

The reason it went in the oven is that although it’s cast iron, my induction stove refused to acknowledge it as being large enough (the foot isn’t that big across) to bother heating it, and oven doesn’t make such requirements about what it’s heating. Once it cools, I will oil it thinly with a food-safe mineral oil, and since it’s not an item that needs seasoning, it’ll be ready to use. So, now you know how to clean up a dirty cast-iron mortar and pestle, or any sort of cast iron item which isn’t heavily rusted and/or isn’t seasoned cookware (removing old seasoning takes a lot more than a little elbow grease, and also different chemicals – there is a good guide to it here which also includes instructions about what to do with severe cases of rust).

As a bonus funny, while looking up the Skeppshult mortar on their site, I came across this very useful non-unitasker item they apparently make in several convenient sizes (absolutely safe for work!). Behold, and giggle, and enjoy!

And now I have to figure out exactly what it is I should cook that would properly utilize my newly-acquired spice-pounding capability. Not to fear, though – I have a new-to-me well-used second-hand Indian cookbook, and I’m not afraid to use it!

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