While it's nice to have fresh peppercorns cracked over your salad by a deft waiter at an upscale eatery, is there really much difference between freshly ground pepper and the pre-ground type you find at the supermarket? Unquestionably yes, according to experts who compare the two types in blind taste tests. Freshly cracked pepper has a much livelier flavor than pre-ground, 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. Mills also contain a storage chamber that feeds peppercorns into the mechanism. With a manual 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. Electric pepper mills operate the same way, but are typically powered by a battery-operated motor.
Most pepper mills are adjustable, meaning you can choose whether you want peppercorns ground finely, coarsely or somewhere in between. When you adjust the grind, you actually change the distance between the head and the ring. Some mills have a knob that gives you an infinite number of grind possibilities, while others have a dial with pre-set grind options. While neither type is better by objective standards, many experts tend to prefer one or the other.
Several pepper mills are also suitable for grinding other spices, and those with a ceramic or acrylic mechanism can handle salt. However, it's important to note that mills with metal mechanisms will be damaged if you grind salt in them.
Pepper mills have traditionally been heavy, wooden and topped with a round decorative finial, but as with many kitchen products, they've been revamped for today's design-conscious consumers and now come in a range of colors, materials and styles. In fact, modern pepper mills resemble everything from ultra-minimalist columns of stainless steel to Rubix cubes to colorful plastic sculptures. But no matter the style, a good pepper mill should have a roomy interior chamber, wide refill opening and sturdy build. After all, many grinders are stored on the counter and most will make contact with the floor at least once in their lifetime.
To determine our list of recommended pepper mills for this report, we analyzed professional and owner reviews, paying particular attention to evaluations of performance, durability and ease of use. Our research encompasses a wide range of sources, including comparative test results, expert-written assessments, and user ratings and comments on retail websites.