There are many ways to grind up ingredients. For example, when my family first arrived in the United States in 1975, we used a wood and metal, hand cranked coffee grinder purchased from a Vietnamese market. My mom and dad were obsessed with getting just the right texture for roasted rice powder (thinh) – which to them wasn’t a fine powder but rather teeny tiny bits.
They made us kids do the cranking and we’d have to put the rice through the grinder multiple times to get the texture she wanted. Cranking made me cranky. It was an early cooking lesson that I didn’t think much about until this morning, when I received this email from Arpana:
Thank you for sharing your wonderful recipes with the world. I loved Into the Vietnamese Kitchen and Asian Dumplings. My cookbook collection would be incomplete without them.
I have a general question. I'm South Asian American, and as you know, South Asian cuisine consists of many dishes that require freshly ground spice blends. My old spice grinder of eight years fell apart and I'm on the search for a new one. I tried the Cuisinart Coffee Grinder but it died within a few months. I have done some research and the Capresso and Krups Coffee Grinders got strong recommendations. However, some recommendations advocate for blade grinders while others argue in favor of burr grinders. What would you recommend? And is there a brand that you prefer? I would really appreciate your input.
Aparna, Bhavna, and Ami (we're all fans!)
Well, I’m not about to suggest reverting back to the hand cranked coffee grinder of my youth. However, Aparna’s choice between blade versus burr grinder for spices was provocative. Indian cooks are very keen on the textures of ground spices and batters. Some of my friends love the portable electric wet stone grinders sold at Indian markets.
My initial response to Arpana was just about electric grinders. I own the three in the photo at the top.
The Cuisinart coffee grinder fell died? Yikes, it shouldn't have. I use a cheapie Krups that I purchased for $20. I actually have 2, one for black pepper (which I use a lot of) and one for other spices (which I clean out after each use by grinding up some raw rice). Certain large spices, such as Cassia bark or whole nutmeg, are tough for the machine to deal so I break them up before grinding them.
I have a burr grinder (Capresso) for coffee. We use it every morning and it has to get thoroughly cleaned once a year. I don't know how the spice oils would do but imagine that they'd be fine. However, the burr grinders are kinda pricey at $100 or so.
Can you return the coffee grinder? It should not have broken down after a few months like that. Sounds like a faulty machine.
For my money, I’d go with the Krups for grinding lots of spices. I have a one that’s over 10 years old with a broken cover but it machinery still works. In the photo below, the cap looks like a bunch of badly broken teeth! Don’t ask where the bits of plastic went but know that I've not had similar problems with newer grinders.
If you pulse a blade grinder and do multiple grinds of small batches, you’ll get a rough texture. A burr grinder allows you to dial in the texture of the spices but it’s quite a job to clean. I keep the Capresso for making perfect coffee each morning. No need to get spices mixed in with the coffee, and I'm too lazy to clean the machine more than once a year. (If you have suggestions on cleaning one, do share!)
After I hit “Send,” I realized that I also use these two manual tools for grinding up smaller quantities of spices:
The mortar and pestle is a smallish one that is great for small batches of spices. For example, some recipes need some pounded cumin seed for a last minute flavor blast. What do I reach for? The mortar and pestle, which I purchased inexpensively for less than $10.
The metal one is made of cast iron and a Swedish work of art. You grind with the top implement, which has a rough bottom to crush the spices. There’s a well under the cork to house the ground spices. I love this grinder’s looks but don’t use it much. It was purchased at Canoe in Portland, Oregon.
My overall suggestions for buying tools for grinding spices are these:
- Occasional spice grinding: Use a mortar and pestle
- Frequent spice grinding: Get a cheapie blade grinder and use it exclusively for spices. (Don’t mix coffee with your spices.)
- Weekly freshly ground spices: Have two cheapie blade grinders, one for peppercorns and one for spice blends.
A couple tips on using and maintaining electric spice grinders:
- Use a pastry brush to remove the ground spices from the well. (I keep one for spices that I don’t wash. Really.)
- Clean out a spice grinder by grinding up some raw rice. If you want an extra cleaning, wet a paper towel and carefully wipe the well and blade. Leave the grinder open to dry naturally.
If you have tips to share or questions to pose, add them down below!