Pepper mills are a must for serious chefs
Is there really much difference between freshly ground pepper and the pre-ground type you find at the supermarket? Yes, according to culinary experts. Freshly cracked pepper has a livelier flavor, they say, and it adds a feisty touch to everything from potato chips to curry or steak. But to enjoy that taste at home, you'll need a pepper mill.
Pepper mills can be manual or electric, but both work by means of a grinding mechanism -- generally a rotating head that sits in a fixed ring. They also contain a storage chamber that feeds peppercorns into the mechanism. Most pepper mills are adjustable, meaning you can choose whether you want peppercorns ground finely, coarsely or somewhere in between. Some mills have a knob that gives you an infinite number of grind possibilities, while others have a dial with pre-set grind options.
Manual pepper mills require a little elbow grease
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 than their electric counterparts, and they're typically more durable. 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.
Electric pepper grinders are as easy as pressing a button
Electric pepper mills are powered by a battery-operated motor. This can be a nice convenience for a cook who needs to multitask 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, and they may not offer as wide a range of grinds. You'll also run through batteries quickly unless you opt for a rechargeable model.
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 and Cooks Illustrated. 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 home 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 manual pepper mills
If you can't get enough pepper, the Unicorn Magnum Plus 9-inch Pepper Mill (Est. $45) may be your perfect grinder. With a beefy capacity of more than a cup of peppercorns, you won't have to refill this unit 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 Plus 9-inch Pepper Mill (Est. $37). The latter also has a matching salt mill, the Unicorn Magnum 6-inch Salt Mill (Est. $37), while the Plus does not.
Experts at Cooks Illustrated say the Magnum Plus is "fast and efficient," giving it high marks for grind speed. 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. Testers at the TheSweetHome.com also knock the Magnum Plus when it comes to grind size, noting that selecting a size requires trial and error since there aren't any indicators.
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 long 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. Many older negative reviews say it's too easy to accidently open the unit's filling door while grinding pepper, but Unicorn has updated the Magnum Plus to rectify this issue.
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 all the way up 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 say the Paris u'Select manages to beat the Unicorn Magnum Plus on grind speed, with TheSweetHome.com's testers noting it took four fewer seconds to grind a half-teaspoon of pepper. But they say the unit really shines when it comes to grind precision, turning out "a consistent grind at every level." Unlike the Magnum Plus, there are six grind-size settings at the bottom of the unit 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, though: It requires users to unscrew the metal nut on top, and experts note that you may have to cup your hands around the opening to avoid dumping peppercorns all over.
The Paris u'Select's grinding mechanism is backed with a lifetime warranty, while the rest is covered with a two-year warranty. For the most part it gets very 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 getting stuck or jamming the mill.
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. $25) 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. A matching salt grinder is available, 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 Julie Workman. It's also easy to load from the bottom, with a wide opening that isn't as 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. While they say the unit is fast, its five coarseness settings are acceptable only if a medium grind is the finest that you want your pepper.
Despite its low price, reviewers 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. OXO products come with a lifetime satisfaction guarantee, and owners give customer service high marks. Some older reviews complain that the bottom of the unit falls off easily, but OXO has redesigned the Good Grips to rectify the issue.