We typically use pepper mills for only a few seconds at a time, but a poorly designed mill can make a few seconds feel like a lifetime. And if you take on a pepper-heavy recipe such as steak au poivre, which calls for a whole tablespoon of crushed peppercorns, any design flaws become even more apparent. Whether you use a mill for big jobs or small, a good one should be easy to load (no one wants peppercorns rolling all over the kitchen), have accurate grind sizes that don’t require guesswork to adjust, and be easy to operate.
Since the last time we tested pepper mills, our winning mill has been redesigned and we’ve noticed new models on the market. So we selected seven models, priced from about $25 to about $50, including the updated version of our previous winner, and got grinding. We examined how easy it was to load peppercorns into each mill, measured their capacities, and used each mill to produce fine-, medium-, and coarse-ground pepper. We also recruited colleagues to try the mills and give feedback, and we checked durability, too. One mill topped the rest, thanks to its user-friendly design and accurate output.
Before using the mills, we needed to fill them. Some mills came prefilled with peppercorns, but we emptied those and used the same peppercorns in all mills for consistency's sake. We loaded each mill to capacity and then weighed the peppercorns inside. Capacities ranged from 21 grams to 71 grams, but because most people use only small amounts of pepper at a time, we didn’t think it was a major drawback if a mill had a smaller capacity. Ease of loading mattered a lot more.
All the mills we tested had openings for loading peppercorns, and the sizes and locations of these openings affected how easy it was to fill the mills. The width of the openings ranged from 1 inch to nearly 2 inches, and the bigger the opening, the easier it was to fill the mill. While the openings of most of the mills were located beneath their removable tops, the opening of one mill was located on its bottom end and the opening for another was on its side. The model with the bottom opening was pretty easy to fill, as we could stand the mill upside down and unscrew the bottom to expose the opening. The side-loading model was frustrating to fill. We had to lay the cylindrical mill on its side, secure it in place so it didn’t roll away, and then, because the opening was just an inch wide, use a funnel to add peppercorns. And while gravity helped guide the peppercorns when filling models that sat vertically, we had to continually adjust the peppercorns in this side-loading model to make space for more peppercorns until it was full.
The wide opening of our favorite mill was located beneath its removable top, and we didn’t need to use a funnel while filling it, although we did use our hand to form a temporary funnel to guide peppercorns while pouring them into this model and others. This mill also had the added benefit of a clear plastic body, which gave us a visual cue when we needed to slow our pour to prevent overflows.
The mechanisms used to adjust grind size varied between the models. Most pepper mills in our lineup featured small knobs on top that we twisted clockwise (tightening them) for a finer grind, and counterclockwise (loosening them) for a coarser grind. Three mills had five or six clearly marked grind settings situated on dials that ringed their bodies.
We strongly disliked the knobs. Several models had a knob located at the very top of the grinder; in one instance, it was on the bottom. The knobs on top didn’t just adjust grind size—they also functioned as screws to keep the mills’ tops in place. This meant that when adjusting the setting to coarse, we risked unscrewing the knob entirely. One model also made a clicking noise when we twisted it, making us wonder if we were damaging it.
The bigger problem with the mills that had knobs, however, was that there were no clear indicators to let us know if we were halfway between a fine and a coarse grind setting, or whether we were only a quarter of the way there. It was guesswork, with the exception of the finest-grind setting, which we reached when we couldn’t turn the knob any further clockwise.
We really liked the dials that specified distinct grind settings on the three remaining mills. The winning model’s dial had six dots, which represented grind sizes from fine to coarse; it was easy to see exactly which setting we had selected, and we could quickly change to another setting with no guesswork.
It was one thing if a mill had clearly marked grind settings. But whether that mill’s pepper output matched the grind setting selected was another matter entirely. One mill’s grind size skewed slightly finer than the grind sizes of the rest of the mills. Another mill’s settings gave us grinds that were slightly more coarse. The rest of the models did a good job giving us consistently fine, medium, and coarsely ground pepper, and our top pepper mill gave us a full range of accurate grinds that matched whichever setting it was set to.
When it came to ease of grinding, most mills rotated easily, with no major issues. But one mill was noticeably harder to turn than the others, making it feel as if we were grinding pebbles, not peppercorns. The grinding mechanisms of most other mills, including our winner, rotated in a far more fluid manner, making them easier and more enjoyable to use.
In the end, our previous winner reigned supreme. The Cole & Mason Derwent Pepper Mill, priced at about $50, was easy to fill with peppercorns, and the clear body allowed us to gauge our progress as we poured them in. Its six grind settings were clearly labeled on a dial that was easy to adjust. Its ground pepper output accurately matched its settings, so there was no guesswork involved. A company spokesperson also told us that the mill’s grinding mechanism had been redesigned to ensure that it would release more flavor from the peppercorns. We didn’t notice any flavor differences when we conducted a side-by-side taste test of black pepper on white rice using pepper ground with both the old and new models. Still, we were very pleased with this new model’s overall performance.