Pepper Mills

Note: America's Test Kitchen continuously updates our equipment reviews and taste tests. The written content below is the most up-to-date information available and may not match what appears in the video segment.

From America's Test Kitchen Season 14: Special-Occasion Roasts

Overview:

Update: July 2013

The test kitchen puts all its favorite equipment to heavy daily use, and our winning Derwent pepper mill from Cole & Mason is no exception. As a result, we've noticed that the black dots marking the grind size settings have worn off this pepper mill over the last several months. A Cole & Mason spokesperson reports that the company is now experimenting with cost-efficient solutions to this problem, including changing the way the black paint is applied, or laser-etching the dots. We are staying in touch to see when the improved pepper mills hit retail stores; we'll test them and report our findings at that time.

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What is it with the pepper mill these days? Sleek, battery-driven models and one-handed ratchet designs compete with traditional hand-crank mills—and most look as though they’ve fallen prey to decorative whims. For our money, a pepper mill has one purpose: to swiftly crank out the desired size and amount of fresh ground pepper, without any… read more

Update: July 2013

The test kitchen puts all its favorite equipment to heavy daily use, and our winning Derwent pepper mill from Cole & Mason is no exception. As a result, we've noticed that the black dots marking the grind size settings have worn off this pepper mill over the last several months. A Cole & Mason spokesperson reports that the company is now experimenting with cost-efficient solutions to this problem, including changing the way the black paint is applied, or laser-etching the dots. We are staying in touch to see when the improved pepper mills hit retail stores; we'll test them and report our findings at that time.

_________________________________________________________

What is it with the pepper mill these days? Sleek, battery-driven models and one-handed ratchet designs compete with traditional hand-crank mills—and most look as though they’ve fallen prey to decorative whims. For our money, a pepper mill has one purpose: to swiftly crank out the desired size and amount of fresh ground pepper, without any guesswork in grind selection or extra strain on our wrists. Simple criteria, and yet many models fail to measure up.

We tested pepper mills in 1996 and 2007, and both times we chose the Unicorn Magnum Plus ($45) as our winner for quickly producing an abundance of uniformly ground pepper with minimal effort. But some of us have always had our quibbles with this mill. Its grind adjuster lacks fixed settings, requiring trial and error to get the target-size grind. While the mill holds a lot of peppercorns, the ring covering the loading chamber can slide open during grinding, allowing the peppercorns to spill right back out. And although it churns out coarse and medium pepper easily, the mill fails to produce truly fine pepper no matter how tightly we crank the grind adjuster.

To see if any new mills could outdo the Unicorn Magnum Plus, we rounded up nine contenders, both manual and battery-powered, priced from $27 to nearly $100, and got grinding.

Adjusting to the Grind

To get a handle on grind speed and ease of operation, we first tested each mill by fine-grinding peppercorns over a digital scale and timing how long it took for each model to produce the equivalent of 2 tablespoons, or 15.3 grams. Speeds ranged from just longer than 1 1/2 minutes to a whopping 14 minutes. The surprise here was that the bigger mills, with the capacity to grind more peppercorns at one time, were not always the fastest. The stubby Trudeau Easy Grind and Peugeot Saint Malo proved just as speedy as (or even speedier than) the much bigger Unicorn Magnum Plus. We realized that part of their success was due to their handles. Instead of twisting at the top, these mills use crank handles that rotate in a wide arc, grinding continuously as well as offering greater leverage with each turn for faster grinding.

Crank handles may be the most efficient, but comfort is important, too. Heavy, awkward models slowed testers down; models that took extra work to grasp, like one “key-top” design mill, had testers constantly repositioning their hands. Mills with smooth, padded handles or rounded tops that fit users’ hands aided, rather than hampered, grinding.

What about mills that require no elbow grease at all? They sound enticing, but battery-driven mills turned out to be nonstarters. One, which cost an astounding $99.95, had us prying apart a complicated mechanism at the base to insert six AAA batteries. The other was the same mill that took a painful 14 minutes to grind 2 tablespoons of pepper.

Finer Points

If quick output were everything, it would be easy to sort winners from losers. But we often want a different-size grind of pepper depending on the dish, and changing the grind size on many of the mills caused trouble. Some relied on a small adjustable screw at the bottom of the grinder that frequently had us resorting to pliers to loosen it. Mills with a finial at the top controlling adjustment meant that every time we filled the hopper with peppercorns we had to recalibrate the grind size as well. Our favorite mills removed the trial and error of grind selection with clear markings that shifted neatly into place.

The final consideration for a pepper mill is grind quality. Getting a mix of fine powder and coarse chunks doesn’t help in recipes when you want one or the other. Only two out of the 10 models in our lineup consistently produced just the right grind size in every setting, while the rest (like our former winner) spat out a mix of dust and cracked peppercorns. When we took the mills apart to look at their inner workings, we began to understand why.

All pepper mills work more or less the same way: A grooved and serrated rotating nut, which is attached to a metal shaft, fits into a stationary, serrated ring. As the nut rotates, its grooved channels lead peppercorns toward the serrations on both the ring and the nut, first cracking then slicing the peppercorns between them. When you turn the adjustment knob, a spring at the center presses the nut and the ring together to change the grind size: tighter for fine, looser for coarse. But in some mills, the spring lacked the ability to fully compress its ring and nut, impeding their ability to deliver a truly fine grind. In other models, the ring and nut were set so far apart in the coarse grind setting that they frequently spat out whole, uncracked peppercorns. The successful models, like our winner, had well-proportioned springs that allowed the ring and nut to be cranked to just the right distance apart. Looking inside also provided a clue as to why two mills in particular lagged far behind the others in speed: the material of their nuts and rings. While the most efficient models in our lineup used steel mechanisms, the nuts and rings of these poky models were made of ceramic. Because ceramic is more brittle than steel—and more prone to breaking—their grooves and serrations weren’t as deep or sharp. As a result, these mills took far longer to grind.

At the end of testing, we finally found a winner to best the Unicorn Magnum Plus. The carbon steel grind mechanism in our winning model features seven large grooves on the nut (most have only five) that taper into finer grooves at the base. These allow it to swiftly channel peppercorns toward the deep, sharp serrations on its ring, for fast, efficient grinding. Its spring provides just the right tension to bring the nut and the ring the appropriate distance together (or apart) to create a uniform grind in each of its six fixed, clearly marked grind sizes. We also appreciated its clear acrylic body, which allows you to track when you need a refill.

Methodology:

We rated 10 pepper mills with steel or ceramic grind mechanisms, both manual and battery-driven, and evaluated them on the criteria below. The mills are listed in order of preference. All were purchased online.

Grind Quality

We ground 1 tablespoon of fine pepper with each mill and shook it through a fine-mesh sieve for 30 seconds; then we weighed what was too coarse to pass through the sieve. For coarse-grind consistency, we ground 1 tablespoon of coarse pepper with each mill, shook it through a fine-mesh sieve for 30 seconds, and weighed what was too fine to remain in the sieve. For the grinds in between, we visually assessed the ground pepper, comparing it with both coarse and fine.

Ease of Use

We rated each mill on how easy it was to fill with peppercorns, adjust to different grind settings, and hold and operate for right- and left-handed users with different hand sizes.

Fine-Grind Speed

We timed how long it took for each mill to grind 15.3 grams (2 tablespoons) of fine pepper.

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Pepper Mills

This everyday gadget has been designed and redesigned a thousand times. But does a fancier mill mean the perfect grind?

Watch the Video

  • Product Tested

    Results Key:

    Good ★ ★ ★ Fair ★ ★ Poor
  • Prices are subject to change.
  • Highly Recommended - Winner

    Cole & Mason Derwent Gourmet Precision Pepper Mill

    When it comes to grind quality, this mill is tops. It made grind selection a snap, with clear markings corresponding to grind size, and every one of its six fixed settings performed well. Its transparent acrylic body proved easy to load and grasp.

    • Ease of Use ★★★
    • Grind Quality ★★★
    • Fine-Grind Speed ★★

    $40.00

    BUY NOW Amazon
  • Recommended

    Peugeot Daman u’Select Shaftless Pepper Mill

    This high-performing mill was fast and consistent, but if its peppercorn supply fell below 1 inch, output slowed. However, with no center shaft and a clever magnetized lid, this mill is a snap to refill. We would prefer that the grind-size adjuster click firmly into place: it can slip if you grab it during grinding.

    • Ease of Use ★★
    • Grind Quality ★★½
    • Fine-Grind Speed ★★★

    $75.00

    BUY NOW Amazon
  • Recommended

    Trudeau Easy Grind 6½-Inch Pepper Mill

    This inexpensive crank-style mill lived up to its name with an easy-to-grip handle that had us cranking out pepper at a rapid clip. A downside: The grind adjustment dial has no fixed grind sizes, making it hard to get just the right pepper size.

    • Ease of Use ★★
    • Grind Quality ★★½
    • Fine-Grind Speed ★★★

    $33.99

    BUY NOW Amazon
  • Recommended

    Unicorn Magnum Plus Pepper Mill

    Our old favorite remains fast and efficient, with a generous capacity and a smooth operation, but its “fine” grind looked more like medium. There are no fixed grind settings, requiring trial and error to get the right grind size, and the loading ring twisted open during grinding, spilling out peppercorns.

    • Ease of Use ★★
    • Grind Quality ★★
    • Fine-Grind Speed ★★★

    $45.00

    BUY NOW Amazon
  • Recommended with Reservations

    Vic Firth 8-Inch Federal Pepper Mill

    Comfortable to hold and twist, this wood mill produced uniform grinds in each setting. Its major flaws were a very small capacity to hold peppercorns, which were difficult to load, and poor output: It finely ground pepper at a very slow pace, even when we loosened the setting a few notches.

    • Ease of Use ★★
    • Grind Quality ★★★
    • Fine-Grind Speed ★½

    $45.95

  • Recommended with Reservations

    Unicorn KeyTop Professional Pepper Mill

    The grind mechanism on this mill from Unicorn is smaller than that of its predecessor, and its key top was hard to grasp, slowing our efforts. It made a better fine grind than did the Magnum Plus but didn’t produce uniformly coarse pepper.

    • Ease of Use ★★
    • Grind Quality ★★½
    • Fine-Grind Speed ★★

    $27.00

  • Not Recommended

    William Bounds Robo Steel Pepper Mill

    Although it ground pepper to a uniform fine size, the coarse setting was troublesome, and this ­battery-powered mill took a lifetime to produce either one. Plus, the dial at the base, which controls the grind setting, got stuck, requiring pliers to loosen.

    • Ease of Use ★★
    • Grind Quality ★★★
    • Fine-Grind Speed

    $60.00

  • Not Recommended

    Peugeot Saint Malo 5.7 Inch Pepper Mill

    This small crank-style mill ground pepper in a flash, but it was uncomfortable to hold and crank and fussy to load. Its fine grind produced too many large pieces—most likely because its crank handle loosened the finial that controls the grind setting.

    • Ease of Use
    • Grind Quality ★½
    • Fine-Grind Speed ★★★

    $49.95

  • Not Recommended

    Peugeot Elis Sense u’Select Stainless Pepper Mill

    This battery-powered mill was frustrating to load—both batteries and peppercorns. On the model’s coarsest setting, many whole peppercorns slipped past the grinder into the mix, and its “fine” pepper was not uniformly fine.

    • Ease of Use ★★
    • Grind Quality
    • Fine-Grind Speed ★★

    $99.95

  • Not Recommended

    William Bounds HM 11-Inch Proview Pepper Mill

    This tall, heavy mill grinds pepper by twisting in both directions, but that didn’t make it more ­efficient—its shallow-grooved, ceramic grinder took far longer than carbon steel to crack ­peppercorns.

    • Ease of Use ★½
    • Grind Quality ★½
    • Fine-Grind Speed

    $70.00

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