Published November 1, 2012. From Cook's Illustrated.
This everyday gadget has been designed and redesigned a thousand times. But does a fancier mill mean the perfect grind?
Update: February 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. Cole & Mason is planning to “review the way the marks are applied to avoid this happening in the future under heavy use,’’ its spokesman told us. We still recommend this pepper mill, and don't anticipate that the marks would fade quickly with normal home use. However, when the company has fixed this problem, we’ll try the updated mill and report back.
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.
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.