Types of pepper mills
With a typical manual pepper mill, you twist a finial or knob, move a lever or perform some other action to get the head to turn, which results in grinding. Manual grinders tend to be quieter and more durable than their electric counterparts, and experts say they produce a more consistently-sized grind. They're also far more common than electric grinders, so you may be better off going with a manual pepper mill if you want the best selection.
While purists prefer a manual pepper mill, many cooks love electric pepper mills because they are so easy to use. This type of grinder is powered by a battery-operated motor. That can be a nice convenience for a cook who needs to multi-task in a busy kitchen. Electric mills may also be ideal for anyone who lacks the hand strength and dexterity to twist a manual pepper mill. However, they have some limitations: they aren't as durable, they're slow, and they may not offer as wide a range of grinds. You'll also run through batteries quickly unless you opt for one of the few rechargeable models on the market.
How we chose the best pepper mills
There are a handful of thorough expert tests and reviews of pepper mills. Most helpful are the hands-on tests of pepper mills from sites like TheSweethome.com, Cooks Illustrated and Fine Cooking. Foodal.com and TheKitchn.com also offer helpful round-ups based on real-world use. As for owner reviews, Amazon.com is the most helpful site by far, offering hundreds of cooks' perspectives on how their pepper mills perform in the home kitchen. To name the best pepper mills, we evaluated these reviews by focusing on ease of use, grind speed and consistency, and durability.
The best pepper mills
Sleek and modern, the metal and acrylic Cole and Mason Derwent Precision Gourmet Pepper Mill is an attractive addition to any table. This 8-inch pepper mill holds about half a cup of peppercorns and is available in stainless steel, gunmetal or copper. If you must have a matching set, you're in luck: There is also a Cole and Mason Derwent Gourmet Precision Salt Mill (Est. $40). The two can also be purchased as a set.
Fortunately, reviewers say the Derwent has more than good looks going for it. Cook's Illustrated testers praise the Derwent for its consistent grind quality, both coarse and fine, at every one of its six settings. They also say this pepper mill is easy to fill and hold. Reviewers agree, saying the Derwent is easy to crank and they praise the grind size, particularly for fineness. While most owners don't voice concern about speed, testers at TheSweethome.com say the Derwent isn't as fast as some of the other models they have tested.
The Derwent has a durable carbon steel grinder, but it hasn't been immune from durability complaints. It has received criticism for the grind-setting markings rubbing off, but new models have etched-on dots to prevent this problem. More notable is that quality control may be an issue: Some reviewers say they got units that did not produce a fine grind, but received replacements that were much better. Fortunately, Cole and Mason offers a lifetime warranty.
If you can't get enough pepper, the Unicorn Magnum Plus 9-inch Pepper Mill (Est. $45) may be your perfect grinder. With its generous 1.25-cup capacity, you won't have to refill it very often. It's relatively large, but the modern silhouette and shiny black finish will help it blend in most kitchens. If you don't require a high-capacity grinder, Unicorn also sells the Unicorn Magnum 6-inch Pepper Mill (Est. $40).
Experts at Cooks Illustrated say the Magnum Plus is "fast and efficient," giving it higher marks for grind speed than the Derwent. It also gets praise for ease of use: Julie Workman of Foodal.com says the extra-long unit is easy to fill and grasp, and it "allows the user to have better leverage" for grinding, which users do by grasping the unit's head and twisting. However, experts agree the Magnum Plus is weaker when it comes to grind quality, with a fine grind that is a bit too large. There are no grind settings – just an adjustable thumb screw on the bottom of the unit.
Made of ABS plastic with a steel grinding mechanism, the Magnum Plus gets mixed reviews for durability. Most users say it's been going strong for years, while others say the grinding mechanism failed relatively quickly. However, owners note that in those cases, Unicorn was quick to replace defective parts or units, even after the one-year warranty was up. The Magnum Plus gets very enthusiastic owner reviews, especially from pepper-lovers who appreciate being able to grind a large amount quickly.
If you're more of a pepper traditionalist, the wooden Peugeot Paris u'Select (Est. $45) has a classic, curved silhouette that evokes its French manufacturer's long history. If the 9-inch unit isn't for you, there are six other options ranging from 5 inches to a towering 16 inches. This pepper grinder also comes in several finishes, including natural or chocolate-stained wood; and red, white, and yellow lacquer. Matching salt mills are available in a range of sizes and finishes.
Experts with TheSweethome.com say the Paris u'Select really shines when it comes to speed and grind precision, turning out "a consistent grind at every level" that was higher quality than the Derwent's. There are six set grind-size settings ranging from coarse to ultrafine. The Paris u'Select gets particular praise for its finer grinds, but its coarsest grinds might be too small for some. Refilling the unit can be tricky: It requires users to unscrew the metal nut on top and has a relatively small opening.
The Paris u'Select's steel grinding mechanism is backed with a lifetime warranty, while the rest is covered with a two-year warranty. For the most part, it gets high marks for durability, with many owners reporting years of use without any issues. Other owners rave about how easy the Paris u'Select is to hold and operate. However, a significant number of reviewers warn that the finish on the lacquered units cracks too easily. A handful of others say they had issues with larger peppercorns jamming the mill.
An inexpensive pepper mill is a great choice for light use
If you don't feel strongly enough about pepper to spend nearly $50 on a mill, reviewers say the OXO Good Grips Pepper Grinder (Est. $20) is a strong budget pick. At a diminutive 5½ inches tall, this squat little pepper mill won't hog space or call much attention to itself, and the mix of see-through plastic and stainless steel should blend well in most modern kitchens. There is also a matching salt grinder, the OXO Good Grips Salt Grinder (Est. $25).
The Good Grips really shines when it comes to ease of use, experts say. The unit is "easy to turn, so much that a small child is capable of using one," notes Foodal.com's Workman. It's also easy to load from the bottom, with a wide opening that isn't prone to spillage. Another perk: Since the OXO's pepper grinder is at the top of the unit instead of the bottom, you won't have to constantly blow stray pepper off your counter or table. Unfortunately, the Good Grips doesn't have the grinding precision of pricier pepper mills: "There is merely coarse and less coarse," Workman says. TheSweethome.com's testers agree, saying its five settings turn out a similar grind.
Despite its low price, owners are pleased with the Good Grips' durability. They say it performs well for anyone who doesn't require a fine grind and has a comfortable handgrip that makes dropping it less likely. The grinding mechanism is ceramic. OXO products come with a lifetime satisfaction guarantee, and owners give customer service high marks.