To some, a pepper mill is just another rarely-used cooking gadget. While it might be nice to have fresh peppercorns cracked over your salad by a deft waiter, is there much difference between pre-ground and freshly ground pepper? Unquestionably, say experts who've compared pre-ground pepper with freshly ground in blind taste tests. Freshly cracked pepper has a much livelier flavor than pre-ground, and it adds a feisty touch to everything from potato chips to curry to steak. A good pepper mill is easy to use, efficient, comfortable to grip and fully adjustable, so the grounds come out powder-fine or truly coarse.
We found few recent pepper mill reviews, and fewer still that base their ratings on comparative testing. The best reviews focus on manual mills, not on battery-powered mills. ConsumerReports.org does not test pepper mills, and the reigning king of cookware-review magazines, Cook's Illustrated, has tested only seven manual mills, along with a handful of electric mills that aren't named. Editors consider such factors as grind quantity, quality, ease of use and grind adjustability. Teri Tsang of Every Day with Rachael Ray rates five pepper grinders, but she doesn't discuss her testing methodology. In the larger of two reviews, Chow.com reviews six mills, but three are from the same manufacturer, and one is discontinued.
Nearly all pepper mills share the same grinding apparatus: namely, ceramic or metal grinding mechanisms that consist of a rotating head sitting in a fixed ring. When you adjust the grind, you're actually changing the distance between the head and the ring. The grinding components turn by the use of a crank, which may take the form of a finial, a smooth head, a flat knob or one or two squeezable levers. Electric pepper mills are generally powered by as many as six AA batteries.
Traditionally, pepper mills have been heavy, wooden and topped with a round decorative finial. But as with many kitchenwares, pepper mills have been revamped for today's design-conscious consumers and now come in a range of colors, materials and styles. Today's pepper mills resemble everything from ultra-minimalist columns of stainless steel to Rubix cubes to plastic bunnies with squeezable ears. What's more, according to the most credible reviews, the classic, turned-wood pepper mill that's a fixture in formal restaurants is no longer the best.
To fill a traditional pepper mill, you remove the finial and the wooden head completely and funnel peppercorns into the cylindrical central chamber. The problem with this design is that peppercorns often bounce off the metal rod in the chamber, and the finial, which adjusts the grind, can become loose and fall off. In recent years, easy-to-clean plastic and sleek stainless steel have replaced wood as the material of choice for pepper mills, and the wooden head/metal finial design has been supplanted by smooth heads, knobs, or levers and larger, better-designed chambers for peppercorns.
Some pepper mills are long on whimsy and short on performance. The Chef'n Pepper Ball (*Est. $13) and Mini Pepper Ball (*Est. $9) store peppercorns in a clear plastic orb, and, in order to grind, you squeeze the attached handles, which are shaped like rabbit ears. Owners complain that each grind yields very little pepper, and what does come out is unevenly ground. Several note that one or both of the ears broke after just a few months. Some say that the Chef'n Pepper Ball is suitable for grinding rarely used spices, such as Sichuan peppercorns, but most are unhappy with it.
Similarly, the Trudeau One-Hand pepper mill places style ahead of substance, reviews say. This mill, which comes in chrome, stainless steel or red plastic, has an unusual, squeezable grip. Editors at a major cookware-review source say this pepper grinder is fatiguing to use. Owners posting to Amazon.com concur. Owner Danielle Suzanne says that although this grinder is good-looking, the "chrome" is actually silver plastic, and it feels like a "bargain-bin item."