The best pepper mill has:
- The ability to swiftly crank out enough fresh pepper. Manual pepper grinders tend to produce more pepper, and do it more quickly. With an electric grinder, you may be waiting close to a minute for a measly half-teaspoon -- a big buzz kill for your hungry friends if you wait to season their food once it's on the table.
- A sturdy, easy-to-grip body. Top-heavy models can be particularly difficult to hold, and they're prone to tipping. Non-slip grips and ergonomic design can also minimize the chance that your pepper mill will slip from your hand and break.
- A grinder that's simple to operate. For most people, it's easy enough to twist a manual pepper grinder. But if you have arthritis, carpal tunnel, or some other condition that limits your dexterity, an electric grinder that simply requires pushing a button might be a better bet. For the easiest operation, some electric mills start grinding automatically when the unit is tipped over -- no button-pushing required.
- An easy-to-fill chamber for peppercorns. Some mills have small openings that virtually guarantee peppercorns will end up all over your floor unless you use a funnel. With most electric pepper grinders, you'll need to remove the battery pack in order to refill the chamber.
- A durable grinding mechanism. Avoid grinding mechanisms made of nylon, which wear out quickly and limit the adjustability of the grind. Ceramic will last longer than nylon, but steel is an even more durable choice.
- The ability to produce consistent grinds. Whether there are set grind settings or a dial that adjusts from fine to coarse, a high-quality mill should produce a powdery fine grind without larger chunks.
Know before you go
How much pepper do you need? If you frequently add large quantities of pepper while cooking, look for a mill that can crank it out quickly and easily. But note that peppercorns can lose their potency over time, so you may not want a high-capacity pepper mill unless you're going to use it all the time.
Do you crave easy-to-clean gadgets? If so, stay away from wooden mills, which are porous and will absorb oils and liquids. Opt for plastic or stainless steel, which are easier to wipe down.
Do you want to avoid trial and error? Consider a mill with pre-set grind choices so you don't have to fiddle around with a knob to get the grind size you want.
Are you design-conscious? For some home cooks, pepper mills are more than utilitarian -- they're a centerpiece on an artfully arranged table or a colorful addition to a well-thought-out kitchen. Pepper mills have traditionally been heavy, wooden and topped with a round decorative finial, but many have been revamped with a range of colors, materials and styles.
Are you looking for super-easy operation? Electric pepper mills require little, if any, manual effort, which can be especially nice if you're multitasking in the kitchen. If you don't want to replace batteries, look for a rechargeable model.
Do you like mood lighting? Electric pepper mills typically have a small LED light that shines on your food while the grinder is on. While some experts say this is little more than a gimmick, it may save you from over- or under-seasoning your food if you like to dine by candlelight, or if your vision is poor.
Do you want a pepper mill that can handle salt and other spices? 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 grinding mechanisms will be damaged if you grind salt in them. You could simply purchase two identical grinders suitable for both salt and pepper, or opt for a separate salt grinder and a pepper mill sold as a set.