For centuries, the trusty mortar and pestle were used to turn peppercorns into ground pepper. Today, most of us choose to grind peppercorns with a mill, resulting in a more uniform and useful ingredient. While grinding is a simple, easy task, choosing among the multitude of grinders currently available can be tricky. Here’s a tip: Don’t get carried away by looks. A pepper mill is a tool. Not that looks don’t matter, since pepper mills often end up on the dining table, but think function before form. At minimum, a pepper mill should grind easily, be easy to fill, hold a lot of peppercorns, and produce a range of uniform grinds, from very fine to coarse.
Output: Consistency and Adjustability
Textural consistency is a desirable result for most manual and electric kitchen tools that process whole food into constituent ingredients— coffee beans into grounds, garlic cloves into minced garlic, chickpeas into hummus. Notwithstanding the cases where variable consistency is desirable, such as crunchy peanut butter or chunky salsa, a uniform texture helps to evenly distribute a given ingredient throughout a dish, whether cooking, baking, steeping, or seasoning. While a quality pepper mill will produce uniform output throughout its range, it’s easier for the grinding mechanism to produce a uniform fine ground than a course one, into which some finer particles will make their way.
Adjustability allows a mill to grind peppercorns in a range of textures, from flakey coarse to powdery fine. Some mills have an adjustable dial that changes the grind texture, while others have clickable settings adjusted by a dial at either the top or bottom of the mill. Settings beyond coarse/medium/fine are unnecessary. The manner by which the grind is adjusted is meaningful: a dial or knob adjustment at the bottom of the mill is easier to vary than a top-mounted knob, or finial, which, when set for a fine grind, makes the mill harder to turn.
|Pepper mill steel mechanism|
|Pepper mill steel housing (collar) and grinder core|
|Pepper mill ceramic mechanism|
Peugeot – the same French company that makes the cars and bikes – invented the pepper mill grinding mechanism in 1842 that is currently used in almost all peppermills (and in burr-type coffee grinders as well). Because the top quality manufacturers use the same basic design, we recommend brands over models in our kitchenCritical Recommends section. The mill consists of an rotating inner head (grinder core/cone) that is attached to a driveshaft. This semi-conical head fits into a stationary, cylindrical collar (grinder housing). Both the inner head and grinder housing have regularly-spaced teeth and grooves, between which the peppercorns are ground. In most mills, there are two sets of grooves/teeth on each head; larger ones at the top crack the peppercorns in half, allowing further grinding by the finer teeth at the bottom. The consistency of the grind is determined by the fineness of the teeth and the (adjustable) distance between the two heads. Adjusting the two heads so that they’re closer together results in a finer grind.
The grinder core and housing are usually made of solid carbon steel, hardened and surface-treated to prevent rusting. Grinding mechanisms made of high quality ceramic materials also cut well, and are non-corrosive. The remaining metallic parts of the mill are made of stainless steel or brass, while the outer housings run the gamut of metal, wood, and plastic. The grinder cone and housing are designed so that both large and small pepppercorns are cut rather than crushed, which helps to keep the teeth from becoming easily clogged, and helps produce a more uniform grind. A pepper mill’s performance – efficiency and ease of operation, output consistency, and durability – relates directly to the quality of its workmanship. The internal parts must be properly machined and assembled, such that that tolerance between the heads is tight, and the teeth remain sharp.
Electric pepper mills
Electric pepper mills have become popular in the last decade, and most manufacturers of manual mills have included electrics in their line-up. The good ones have the same grinding mechanisms as the hand-operated versions; the lesser-quality mills are often cheaply constructed using plastic parts. Some electrics have rechargeable batteries, some take as many as six AAAs — adding weight to the tool, but still aloowing for one-handed operation. In fact, it’s the ease of operation, without sacrificing performance, that accounts for the enthusiasm of a growing number of electric mill users. Many models have lights, illuminating the seasoning process.
Nantucket-based Unicorn made a splash in the pepper mill world in 1986 when it introduced the “Peppergun”, a 6″-high black plastic mill with two levers that can be operated with one hand. That model is still available, for $29, along with six others, comprising a pepper mill line that has been the most popular and the most critically praised in the country for more than decade.
Nantucket’s other models range from the top-of-the line Magnum Plus, a 9” mill, for $45, to the 3” portable Minimill, for $18.50. These machines feature Italian mechanisms and US-made acrylic casings. They make grinding fast and easy, with three grind-settings on some models, and a bottom-mounted variable knob on others. They’re easy to refill, and the larger models hold plenty of peppercorns — 15 tablespoons for the Magnum Plus.
The casings are available in black and, for some models, white and red. You might think a plastic housing would not be as durable as one of metal or wood, but the Peppergun we bought twenty years ago to do all our pepper grinding is as good as new. Unicorn mills come with a one-year warranty.
French company Peugeot has been making pepper mills for more than 160 years, and has dominated the category, worldwide. Peugeot currently offers thirty manual models, most available in several different sizes (3″-14″; Peugeot’s website lists a 42″ mill) and finishes (including French beech wood, stainless steel, acrylic, or a combination of those materials). Prices range from $20 to about $100 for the hand-operated mills.
Puegeot also makes six models of electric mills for between $50 and $130. Two popular Peugeot models — the curvy Chateauneuf and the more contemporary sleek Fidji — are favorites, particularly with a black matte finish, and in the 8”-9” size range. Beneath the hand rubbed finish, which is easy to grip even with wet hands, is a tough, case-hardened steel mechanism that can be adjusted, using a ring at the bottom of the mill, to one of six settings. At between $50-$80 these pepper mills are not inexpensive, but this is a kitchen fixture your children should be able to use in their old age. Peugeot mills are guaranteed for two years; the grinding mechanism carries a lifetime warranty.
Oxo’s two peppermills are smaller and more affordable than the Unicorn and Peugeot pepper mills. Oxo makes a $12 plastic mill, with a long, non-slip turning arm; and a $20 “Good Grips” acrylic model with stainless steel trim. Both have ceramic grinding mechanisms with coarse and fine settings, and both are easy to use and to refill. Oxo guarantees their products without specifying a timeframe.
The $35 PepperMate, with a plastic housing available in three colors, is of alternative design: It has a large flat turning knob on the side, which many users find easier to operate, especially with high-volume grinding, than the traditional top-knob configuration, which requires more of a twisting action. There’s also a clear plastic grounds receptacle which fits on the bottom of the mill.
Even when long-time users complain about wear effects on the plastic casing – a less than snug fit with the base container, or a faded finish – those same users often announce their intention to replace the old mill with a new PepperMate.
This 40-year-old California-based company has the widest selection of pepper mill styles and materials on the market. From a $13 acrylic model to the $80 12” copper Pro model, and bamboo and pewter mills in between, good luck choosing one of these over the others in their line. William Bounds also has four electric models, from $30-$50. The ceramic mechanism has a lifetime guarantee. Most WB mills have three coarseness settings, adjusted using a ring just below the handle.
Links to Manufacturers
Other manufacturers to consider
Note: Peppercorns are the dried fruit of the black pepper plant, a tropical flowering vine. Most of the pepper used to season food comes from Southeast Asia. Gourmet Peppercorns and Penzeys are two vendors of high-quality peppercorns.
Finally: pepper mill or peppermill? We don’t have an opinion. Many manufacturers call their products peppermills. We used the dictionary approach, which is two separate words, but it’s an unimportant difference to us.
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revised: February 13, 2012
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