The Best Pepper Mills

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

Shake a tin of ground pepper and it will coat your food with a dusting of black flecks—but in reality, this pre-ground stuff only looks the part. To take advantage of pepper's throat-tingling heat and complex layers of warm and funky flavor, you'll need to grind it on the spot. That's because pepper's volatile aromatic molecules rapidly waft away once the pepper is ground, never to return.

Sounds simple enough, right? But quickly cranking out uniform shards of pepper, whether fine or coarse, is something most mills struggle to do. We tested more than 20 pepper mills to find easy-to-use models that produce consistent grinds across a wide range of sizes, without a lot of unnecessary cranking.

TL;DR

Our Favorite Pepper Mill: Fletchers' Mill Federal Pepper Mill

Creating nearly the same volume of ground pepper as the most efficient mill we tested (the Unicorn Magnum), the Fletchers' Mill Federal made the finest powder of all the mills. Plus, the classic shape looks good on the table.

Our Budget Pick: Kuhn Rikon Table Vase Grinder

The Kuhn Rikon Table Vase Grinder came in behind the Fletchers' Mill Federal in speed, but does a good job across a range of grind sizes and is about half the price of our overall winner. The grinding mechanism faces up when the mill is not in use, so it won't leave a mess on your table or countertop.

The Fastest Mill: Unicorn Magnum Pepper Mill

If you value getting the maximum amount of pepper with the least effort, pick the Unicorn Magnum. This beast didn't perform well at grinding pepper finely, but it was able to churn out a teaspoon with only six and a half rotations.

The Best One-Handed Mill: PepperMills Supreme

Mills that work with the squeeze of a hand or the push of a button always sacrifice grind consistency and speed; we simply can't recommend them without significant reservations. But if one-handed operation is a priority, the PepperMills Supreme was the quickest of the one-handed mills we tested, and easy to load. The downsides: It's heavy and loud, and it has trouble grinding fine pepper.

Now for the Deets

A good pepper mill has to be fast, consistent, and easy to twist and load. Since some manufacturers offer dozens of pepper mill models, including $300, 31-inch behemoths, we set some criteria to limit the testing field. We set a price cap of $45 and, for utility, tested models that were as close to eight inches tall as possible; that size holds a good amount of peppercorns but isn't a chore to store. Because we prefer to keep our salt in a salt pig or cellar, we tested only pepper mills that were not part of a set. We also focused on mills with steel or ceramic grinding mechanisms, which are more durable than the disposable supermarket mills with cheap acrylic parts.

To further guide our selection, we looked at the best-selling items on major retailers like Amazon, and cross-referenced reviews from other reputable brands, like The Sweethome and America's Test Kitchen. We eventually rounded up 21 models, from ones that twist and crank to single-handed versions that you squeeze to operate, as well as battery-powered devices that offer push-button simplicity.

The Fletchers' Mill Federal Pepper Mill came out on top because it grinds consistently and quickly, excels at fine grinding, and comes in 11 finishes to match a wide range of kitchen decor.

The Criteria and Testing

Output: How Efficiently Will It Grind a Teaspoon of Pepper?

A mill's output is not the same as its speed, but it's a good proxy for it: Different people may grind at different speeds, and design factors can affect this, but in general, a mill that produces more pepper per rotation will do so faster than one that produces less. And chances are, if a pepper mill is efficient, it will be a joy to use—no one wants to stand over a pot twisting a mill endlessly while only a few near-invisible motes of pepper drift from it. The goal is to add pepper to the food, after all, not develop a nasty case of tendinitis.

Because grind settings are inconsistent from one pepper mill to the next, we leveled the playing field by calibrating the mills to a uniform medium grind size, using standardized, lab-grade testing sieves. We then determined the mass of a teaspoon of pepper at that calibrated grind size. With those factors established, we could accurately measure the output of each mill by counting the number of rotations it took to produce a teaspoon's worth of pepper, repeating the test three times for each mill and averaging the results.

Grind Range: From Super-Fine to Cracked

Different cooking scenarios call for different grind sizes. A smooth and silky soup or vegetable purée usually requires the finest grind, since even medium-fine pepper will feel gritty in the mouth against such a satiny backdrop. On the other end of the spectrum, cracked pepper adds a pleasant textural element to steak au poivre and other spice-crusted dishes.

The consistency of those grinds is just as important. A mill that, on its finest setting, produces extremely fine pepper mixed with some errant larger bits is less desirable than one that produces an entirely fine grind. The opposite is also true, though not to the same degree: Expelling some fine pepper while grinding coarsely presents less of a problem in most recipes, since the fine pepper will disappear into the dish, usually without causing harm. An inconsistent fine grind is therefore a bigger pepper mill flaw.

We tested all mills at both their finest and coarsest settings to see just how well they handled the extremes. To do this, we dialed each model into its finest setting, ground a set amount, and sifted the pepper through a #30 fine-mesh sieve, which catches particles larger than 0.6 millimeters and lets the smaller stuff pass through. Mills with a good fine-grind capability were able to get more pepper past that fine-mesh screen.

Then, for large batches of cracked peppercorns, we adjusted each mill to its coarsest setting and ground a set amount. We sifted that amount through #12 (coarse) and #18 (medium) sieves, and weighed what was caught by each sieve and what passed through. Mills earned higher scores if they produced ground pepper that was mostly caught by the coarse sieve, and lower scores if they sent a lot of pepper through both. Ultimately, though, while we consider the ability to grind pepper coarsely important, we value that less than the capacity to execute a great fine grind—especially since huge chunks of cracked pepper are easy to make by putting whole peppercorns in a plastic zipper-lock bag and banging them a few times with a meat pounder or heavy skillet.

We also noted whether grind consistency changed with repeated use by testing the mills before and after repeated handling and dropping.

Durability Test: Drop and Repeat

To test if the eventual drop from the counter would break or damage the mills, or loosen any key parts, we knocked each one off a countertop onto a wood floor three times and noted any damage. Cosmetic scuffs were acceptable and noted, but any mills damaged beyond immediate repair were disqualified.

Note that we didn't subject the electric mills to drop tests, since they are far more likely to be hurt by a fall than a manual mill with fewer delicate parts. (Plus, we already have plenty of reservations about electric mills, and finding one to recommend was mostly an issue of eliminating the worst. Whether the remaining mills could withstand a fall wouldn't have much of an impact on our final assessment.)

User Experience: How Easy Is It to Use?

Multiple people on the Serious Eats team, representing a range of culinary experience (from our test-kitchen pros to office staffers), with various hand sizes and pepper mill–holding styles (you'd be surprised at how many ways there are to hold and twist a pepper mill!), used the mills and provided feedback on comfort, ease of grinding, and balance.

How We Chose Our Winner(s)

We started by eliminating all mills that took longer than average to grind a teaspoon of pepper. Likewise, mills that could not deliver a wide range of grind sizes (especially a good fine grind), scored low on the durability test, or got overly negative feedback from users were disqualified. In the end, the testing revealed the mills that got the highest ratings on efficiency, range of grind sizes, consistency, ease of use, and build quality. Interestingly, we found not a single mill that excelled in all areas. Our favorite mill blew almost all the others away in fine-grinding capability, and was nearly neck and neck with the most efficient mill, but didn't crack peppercorns quite as coarsely as the others. The most efficient mill, meanwhile, was a powerhouse in the output testing, but fell short of producing a very fine grind.

Our Favorite Pepper Mill: Fletchers' Mill Federal Pepper Mill

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A nearly perfect mix of speed and the ability to grind very fine pepper puts the Fletchers' Mill Federal Pepper Mill at the top of our list. The mill's classic shape and top-mounted adjustment knob make it familiar and intuitive to use.

Once it was calibrated to a standard medium-fine grind size, we found that seven full rotations, or about 14 of the more typical half turns that most people use, yielded a teaspoon of ground pepper. That's a lot of pepper, far more than most recipes call for (unless you're making a spice rub for a huge cookout, in which case you should probably break out an electric spice grinder). This is the second most productive mill, surpassed only by the Unicorn Magnum on that criterion—and not by much, according to the numbers. Some mills in the test took nearly seven times as many turns to yield the same weight, which just goes to show what a difference a pepper mill can make.

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But output isn't the only reason we love this mill. When set to its finest grind size and pitted against our #30 fine-mesh sieve, which catches particles down to 0.6 millimeters, the Fletchers' Mill Federal consistently ground the greatest proportion (nearly 98%) of very fine pepper. It was less effective at grinding coarsely; only 22% of the pepper was larger than our #12 sieve's 1.7-millimeter-wide mesh. In fact, on the coarsest setting, nearly half of the pepper was just bigger than our #18 sieve (one millimeter wide), or what can generally be considered a medium grind.

We didn't find a mill that mastered every grind size. But the Federal's ability to consistently grind best on the finest setting outweighed any inconsistency at producing cracked peppercorns, a much less common kitchen task. It will grind coarsely enough to produce a peppery crust on a steak, but if you truly need peppercorns cracked into halves or quarters and no smaller, consider whacking them in a zipper-lock bag with a meat pounder or the bottom of a skillet.

Turning the mill was easy for both lefty and righty cooks and those with small or large hands, regardless of how they held and turned it. The stainless steel grinding mechanism, which carries a lifetime warranty, responds instantly when you turn the top knob. Inside the mill, a center shaft sits perfectly plumb, thanks to a plastic bracket that prevents misalignment when you flood the chamber with peppercorns. A large spring just under the bracket pushes the shaft and grinding cone up or down, controlling the size of the pepper grind. Twist the top knob clockwise and pull the grinding cone up to leave less space between it and the grinding ring, crushing peppercorns finer. Even to less experienced staffers, the mill's turned-wood shape made it easy to work with—they knew which way to adjust the top knob, how to grind the pepper, and how to refill it. With a full payload of nine teaspoons of whole peppercorns, the grinder feels well balanced, though it does leave a moderate amount of pepper debris behind when not in use.

Note that Fletchers' Mill also manufactures a popular line of grinders that bear Mario Batali's name. While we didn't test any of these models, Fletchers' Mill has confirmed that the grinding mechanism and build are the same on the Batali-branded mills.

Our Budget Pick: Kuhn Rikon Table Vase Grinder

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If you gravitate toward a modern aesthetic, the Kuhn Rikon Table Vase Grinder falls just short of the top spot based on efficiency—but not by much. Requiring 10 rotations to produce a teaspoon of pepper, three more than the Fletchers' Mill, the Table Vase Grinder is easy to grip, twist, and fill. We tested Kuhn Rikon's larger version of this vase grinder, but can't recommend it because some users found the larger base (three and three-quarters inches wide) uncomfortable to hold and turn, and it also failed durability testing. (The part that failed is different on the Table Vase Grinder, which, as we were able to confirm through testing, doesn't suffer the same weakness.)

The design won several user-experience categories: Despite its small size, it holds more whole peppercorns than just about any other mill in the test, except for the larger Kuhn Rikon model; the grinding mechanism faces up when not in use, so it won't leave pepper detritus on the table; and the opening to the peppercorn holder is a generous one and a quarter inches wide, making it very easy to refill. We also liked the unit's comfortable adjustment knob, which has icons showing you which way to turn it for fine or coarse pepper. Our only complaint came from cooks with larger hands, who noticed that the scant body length of this smaller model wasn't enough to prevent their hands from rubbing together when grinding.

The Table Vase takes a new approach to the design of the grinding mechanism. Unlike traditional mills, which put the grinding mechanism on one end, the twist knob on the other, and a long shaft between them, this version keeps all the moving parts in a one-and-a-half-inch space. There is no long, wobbly rod running through the length of the mill, which, on conventional models, often becomes misaligned when the mill is loaded with peppercorns.

Covered by a two-year warranty, the ceramic cone is easy to remove, clean, and reassemble. And, because the ceramic cone won't be harmed by salt, like steel would, you can grind other spices in the mill—though, as mentioned above, we prefer a salt pig or salt cellar to keep salt easily accessible for proper seasoning.

The Table Vase has a glass body, which gave us concern about its durability. (This glass body, it's worth noting, also exposes the whole peppercorns to light, which can degrade them faster than a dark storage space would.) In the end, though, the glass survived all attempts in the drop test. A plastic ring around the top did pop off each time, yet even that never broke and snapped right back into place.

On grind size and consistency, the Table Vase is something of a jack-of-all-trades and master of none. It came in 11th place in the fine-grinding tests, with a respectable 70% of the pepper successfully passing through our #30 fine-mesh sieve. On the opposite end, it finished seventh in coarse-pepper testing; nearly 65% of what it ground was large enough to get caught in our coarse #12 sieve. For the price, though, those numbers are hard to argue with.

The Fastest Mill: Unicorn Magnum Pepper Mill

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If speed and output are your only concerns, the Unicorn Magnum Pepper Mill, which is popular in many restaurant kitchens and has long been a top-recommended mill on Serious Eats, is at the front of the pack.

The mill's grinding mechanism is over one and a quarter inches wide, the largest of all the mills tested, and must be responsible, at least in part, for the mill's impressive productivity: We reached a teaspoon of ground pepper in just six and a half rotations. Its major drawback, though, is fine grinding. The Unicorn Magnum, even straight from the box, cannot achieve a very fine grind, finishing near the bottom when put through that portion of the sieve test (it excelled at coarse grinding).

While the Unicorn was comfortable and generally easy to work with, some cooks reported twisting the door open during use, sending peppercorns all over the floor. Made from black plastic, the seemingly bombproof shell is hard to damage and wipes clean easily. But that same plastic also makes it hard to love on aesthetic merits.

The mill also comes with a small black plastic tray, which catches any pepper mess that falls from the mill when it's not in use—try not to lose it, because the Unicorn leaves behind a moderate amount of pepper flecks.

Our Favorite One-Handed Mill

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For those who have fine-motor issues or find it difficult to use two hands, a battery-powered version is a promising option. Cooks who often end up with one hand deep in the cavity of a raw chicken might also appreciate being able to shower fresh pepper down on it with their free hand. Sadly, most of what we tested was too slow—some of these mills took hundreds of movements to deliver a ground teaspoon—or lacked the ability to grind finely. We're not giving up on our two-handed manual mills any time soon, but the PepperMills Supreme did ace speed trials, cranking out a teaspoon of pepper in less than 20 seconds. It tackled fine grinding about as well as the Unicorn Magnum, too, and finished near the top for consistency on coarse grind.

On the downside, its weight, which is more than a pound when loaded with four AA batteries, can become a problem with extended use. The mill holds about 24 teaspoons of peppercorns, and the manufacturer claims users can expect to empty four or five loads of peppercorns before the batteries need to be replaced. Inside are two ceramic grinding mechanisms that share the work, but we wish this model had more adjustability beyond the four preset grind sizes, which we found limiting.

The PepperMills Supreme also has an LED light on the bottom that turns on when you press the grind button. There's no harm in having it, though we're not convinced it's a particularly helpful feature, unless you routinely cook and eat in the dark. (And, even if you are fond of excessively shadowy, candlelit dinners, the loud whine of the motor is enough to kill even the most romantic mood.)