Spices 101: Three Options for Grinding Spices (Recipe: Quick Mojo Sauce)

If you’ve got a pepper mill, then you are off to a great start to grinding your own spices. Why grind your own? Well, we’ve already discussed the benefits of buying whole spices, so now you’ve got to break them down. Fortunately it’s easy to do and well worth your time. One sniff of freshly pulverized cinnamon will likely convert you forever.

As with most kitchen equipment, a simple tool is best for grinding spices; here are my recommendations for three different types.

1. Mortar & Pestle

I love pulverizing whole spices by hand in a mortar and pestle, because I feel like I am connecting with women all throughout history who have done the same thing. It’s like kneading bread by hand, it brings a satisfaction that only working ingredients by hand can provoke.

Photo by stevendepolo

On a practical side, a mortar and pestle offers instant results, a fast clean, and a perfumed kitchen. It is ideal for crushing small amounts of spices, and also works well for pestos, curry pastes, or sauces like the Mojo below, with the mortar taking the place of a mixing bowl.

Choose a mortar and pestle for bruising herbs, the occasional guacamole (yes!), and small amounts of spices here and there. For serious spice grinding, however, you will want this…

2. Coffee Grinder

If you do a lot of cooking, I recommended you purchase an inexpensive coffee grinder and dedicate it to a lifetime of spices. (You won’t want it to go back to grinding coffee once those blades connect with their first curry blend).

It’s an affordable investment that will simplify your cooking. I think I paid $19.99 for my 200 watt Braun and that was, oh, six or seven years ago.

Nothing beats a little coffee grinder for pulverizing large amounts of spices, such as blends, or bark spices, like cinnamon, which tend to just shred under the pestle.


A coffee grinder is not quite as easy to clean as a mortar, but here are a few ways it can be done efficiently and thoroughly. Note: one of these methods is usually sufficient depending on the type of spice ground. Safety first: always unplug the grinder before cleaning.

  • Use a stiff bristled pastry brush to remove all spice residue. (keep this brush labeled ‘spices’ and keep it dry.)
  • Wipe with a damp sponge or even a heel of bread.
  • Pulse a few tablespoons of rock salt through the grinder, discard and wipe clean. This doesn’t have to be done every time, but helps to eliminate excess odors and flavors when switching from savory to sweet spices.
  • For a deep clean, pulse 1/4 cup of rice through and discard rice. This helps remove stuck particles and oil residues.

3. Microplane

This kitchen tool is useful for large nuts such as nutmeg, tonka bean and some types of cinnamon or casse. A gourmet’s best friend, it is also very handy for grating ginger, garlic, chocolate, citrus rind and many other ingredients.

For years I went without a microplane, and made do on an old box grater; however, one recent Christmas I happily found myself in possession of one and now reach for it nearly every day. It is definitely an essential kitchen tool for the scratch cook.

A Word on Toasting Spices

No matter what method you use to grind them, almost all spices can benefit from a slight toasting before grinding to bring out their flavors.

Nope, you don’t use a conventional toaster, so put away that 4-slice T-Fal; all you need is a small pan! Cast iron works well. Heat the pan gently over medium heat, add spices and give the pan a shake. Toast for 2-3 minutes, watching carefully that nothing browns or burns. You will smell the spices releasing their natural oils.

Remove from heat, cool and use as directed in recipe.

Recipe: Quick Mojo Sauce for Grillables

Don’t skim or ignore this recipe, because you would be bypassing my go-to summer grilling sauce! Forget sugary barbecue blends, this vibrant citrus-based sauce can be paired with almost anything that you’re grilling.

Based on a  traditional Cuban sauce, my mojo uses cumin seed, fresh garlic, limes and oranges to create a pungent sauce that is essential for summer grilling. The best part? It can be mixed up in advance.

I love spooning my Mojo over grilled and sliced pork tenderloin, tossing it with grilled shrimp, or dousing chicken kebabs. You can even use mojo over grilled vegetables or toss it with greens for a salad. Don’t forget the sliced avocado!

Quick Mojo Sauce

  • 3 small oranges, scrubbed
  • 3 limes, scrubbed
  • 1 clove garlic, peeled
  • 1 teaspoon whole cumin
  • 6 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1. Toast cumin gently over medium heat for 2-3 minutes. Transfer to a mortar and allow to cool. Pulverize with pestle.

2. Add garlic to cumin and smash to a paste.

3. Zest and juice citrus and add to mortar. Add olive oil and mix well. Transfer to a jar with a lid. Marinade 6-8 hours. Can keep 2-3 days refrigerated.

4. Use liberally over grilled meats and seafood. Garnish with fresh coriander and sea salt.

Do you use whole spices? How do you grind them?

About Aimee

Cooking has always been Aimée's preferred recreational activity, creative outlet, and source of relaxation. After nearly ten years in the professional cooking industry, she went from restaurant to RSS by trading her tongs and clogs for cookie cutters and a laptop, serving as editor here at Simple Bites. Her first book, Brown Eggs and Jam Jars - Family Recipes from the Kitchen of Simple Bites, was published in February 2015.

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  1. Valerie says

    I think using fresh ground spices is so important! It really takes cooking to the next level. Buying spices from a good spice vendor also helps (who KNOWS how old that stuff at the grocery store is?).

    I clean my spice grinder by running a mixture of salt and baking soda through it. The baking soda not only helps scour out the clinging spices, but it deodorizes, too. I haven’t tried the rice before, I’ll give it a shot!
    .-= Valerie’s last blog: Fancy Scrambled Eggs w/Garlic & Herb Cheese =-.

  2. Oh. My. Goodness! That Mojo sauce looks amazing! I will definitely be trying that one soon! My mouth is watering just thinking about it. As for grinding my spices – this is one area where I am sorely lacking. I do use fresh ground pepper and salt – and some fresh herbs from our garden….but all my other spices are purchased already ground. I need to step it up a notch and invest in something like you mentioned here. Thanks for the tips! 🙂
    .-= Katie ~ Simple Organic’s last blog: Green & Gorgeous for Moms =-.

  3. Valerie says

    I knew about using a coffee grinder, but not how to clean it. Thanks!

  4. I love using whole spices. I have a nice mortar and pestle, but I can’t grind much in it because I seem to have a problem getting it to a fine powder. It’s a marble one with a rough interior and pestle tip, but for some reason unless I work REALLY hard at it I merely end up with cracked spices. But I’m in love with my spice grinder. It actually used to grind coffee but I cleaned it out well enough that you can’t tell. It smells more like cinnamon than anything now! I also love my microplane, though I’ve only used it on nutmeg when it comes to spices.
    I hate toasting in the oven. Stove-toasting all the way! It’s faster, more efficient, and makes it harder to burn what you’re toasting. 🙂

  5. I must confess that I don’t really grind my spices myself, but reading this really makes me want to. I use fresh ground salt and pepper and fresh herbs I chop by hand but everything else is pre-ground. I think I’m in need of one of the items listed above!
    .-= Jan (Family Bites)’s last blog: Thyme for Honey Cake =-.

  6. Whole spices are a revelation, once you start using them! I notice you’re using what looks like the ras el hanout from Épices de Cru: you might enjoy the interview we did with Philippe and Ethné de Vienne, the fascinating team behind these awesome spices.

    • Hi David,
      Thanks for stopping by Simple Bites! It’s always wonderful to connect with other Montreal bloggers.

      This spice blend in the photo is actually Philippe’s Silk Road blend, a particular favorite of mine. Of course, the ras is exceptional, as are all their products…

      I appreciate the link to the interview. It was a great read!
      If you are curious, you can read about my connection with the de Vienne’s here:


      Thanks again for your comment.

      • Please forgive me for being unaware of what grinding your spices, with regard to any properties changes.
        For example: What changes if any are made in the values (potency) of a fine grind . assuming the weight/volume is equal.

  7. Here’s the link for the spice hunter interview (I screwed up the link attached to my name in the previous comment):

  8. I discovered a SUPER COOL tip today! When blenders were invented, they were designed to allow a mason jar to be screwed on in place of the pitcher to chop and grind small quantities of food (like spices). I did some research, and it sounds like most new blenders today still allow for this versatility, even if it’s not advertised (after all, how are the manufactures going to sell you a blender AND a coffee grinder, if you know this tip?). Pretty neat, right?

    • Kara-

      Thanks for that great tip! I was on the cusp of buying a ‘Mixie’ – an expensive Indian heavy-duty grinder for $100+ because Cinnamon has been wrecking my coffee grinders. I will now break down the cinnamon with the blender and then put the fragmented cinnamon into the coffee grinder into a powder.

  9. I can’t wait to try these recipes! I offer something that might help It is called Freezer mates. They are amazing products. I recently just took Rosemary and poured melted butter on top of it. I then waited for it to cool and then froze in the freezer mates. I am going to use a melon baller so i can just get what I need. I also took Thyme and froze oil in ice cub trays then did some with butter then froze them the Tupperware freezer mates. They are amazing the freezer mates are good for all sorts of things. They also stack in your freezer to make it easier. If you want a picture of what mine look like or more information please feel free to go to mysite. Thank you for sharring your recipes I am so excited to try and make them!

  10. Mortar and Pestle always works for me. I think it brings out the raw, natural odour and flavour of the spices. However, if I had to go for an alternative, I would choose coffee grinder, since it is less time consuming.

  11. I’m really interested in this mojo sauce.
    In the description you say it contains lime and ORANGE. But the recipe lists 3 lime and 3 LEMON.
    Which is it please?

  12. Hell;
    In your ” Quick Mojo Sauce” you say to use cumin. I can’t. My sister is allergic to cumin. Is there some eltes that we can use?
    Thank you for your time in regards to my question.
    Sincerely :

  13. l prefer the fine grind. l believe it gives the herb more flavour to the dish.
    but would love to hear comments.

  14. I read a lot on grinding herbs with coffee grinder, which you also recommend.
    However, I read also about how herbs will lose their beneficial or medicinal properties under heat.
    What is your take on this subject?

  15. Quick question on the Orange, when you say scrubbed how do you scrub those oranges into little bits? Using the Microplane? Thanks.

  16. Thomas dit :C’est étrange de faire un résumé aussi complet et d’omettre que l’arbitre a refusé un but d’Orsay en 2nde période. Les arbitres malhonnêtes, c’est plus ce que c’était …

  17. I have been grinding spices for many years for making chai. I have gone through at least 6 of those coffee grinders. Nutmeg and cinnamon sticks simply trashed them. Then I started using a cuisinart spice grinder. Same problem. I killed about 5 or 6 of those, by having cinnamon and nutmeg snap the flimsy blades.
    Just today, I got a heavier duty Waring spice grinder, WSG-60. I can see it has thicker blades.

    Here’s my suggestion: take the cinnamon sticks, nutmeg, and any other big, thick spices, put them in a thick-walled plastic bag, and bash it with one of those heavy hammers for pounding poultry, or a rolling pin. Then the pieces you grind will be less likely to trash the blades. I only started doing that about 3 grinders ago. I’m hoping that this new grinder won’t be so wimpy.

  18. Cinthea Martinsen says

    The small coffee mill is also perfect for making a bit of confectioners sugar for toppings. Can grind a bit of cinnamon, cardamom, star anise, etc., with the sugar and sprinkle over pancakes, French toast, cakes, muffins… I’ve used a bit of baking soda to clean mine between sweet and savory spices, will try the rice idea in the future, thank you!

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  22. I use a lot of whole spices. I could really use a comprehensive list of whole = ground conversions such as 1 tsp. Whole =1/4 tsp. ground . I cannot find a list of spices beyond Allspice, Black pepper, Cardamom,Cinnamon, Coriander, Cumin, Fennel, Nutmeg and Mustard seeds – https://lifehacker.com/the-measurements-to-convert-common-whole-spices-into-gr-1755100577.
    Can any one provide a bigger list.

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  24. Grindily says

    Another method used in grinding spices is pepper mil. Get the mill, rinse with clean water, and pour the spices into the pepper mill. Hold it and twist the cover to get a finely powdered result. The cover of the mill is where the grinder is located. So the moment you twist it, the spices are being ground to pieces, quite awesome right?

  25. Hey Aimee. Thanks for writing up this post. It was really helpful. You have a lot of great resources mentioned there. I have to mention, as someone who uses blenders for grinding spices, I kind of expected blenders as one of the ways of grinding spices. I think it would be a great idea to add blenders as the fourth way to grind spices. What do you think? I have a suggestion for a resource that I am sure will help your readers – https://blendinggadgets.com/best-blender-for-grinding-spices/. Anyway, I just wanted to say thanks and repay you with a suggested resource that you can add to your article. Keep up the great work. Regards!

  26. Great Article! Thank you for the various methods, I personally use the grinder method because it is the best and the most time-saving one.

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