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By Cook's Illustrated Published November 2012

Pepper Mills

Published November 2012
Update: September 2015
The original version of our winning Cole & Mason Derwent Gourmet Precision Pepper Mill ($40.00) featured a row of painted-on dots that indicated the grind setting, but we found that these wore off over time. We notified the manufacturer, which has since changed to more durable etched-on dots. We purchased one of the improved models, and after more than 16 weeks of heavy test kitchen use, the dots are still intact. To determine whether a mill has the etched-on dots, check the batch number, which you can find printed on the swing tag, above the UPC, or on a product sticker. The number should be 140228 or higher.

How we tested

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, the best 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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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Design Trifecta 360 Knife Block

Admittedly expensive, this handsome block certainly seemed to live up to its billing as “the last knife block you ever have to buy.” The heaviest model in our testing, this block was ultrastable, and its durable bamboo exterior was a breeze to clean. Well-placed medium-strength magnets made it easy to attach all our knives, and a rotating base gave us quick access to them. One tiny quibble: The blade of our 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a little.

$248.64*
Recommended

Schmidt Brothers Downtown Block

This roomy block completely sheathed our entire winning knife set using just one of its two sides—and quite securely, thanks to long, medium-strength magnet bars. Heavy, with a grippy base, this block was very stable. An acrylic guard made this model extra-safe but also made it a little trickier to insert knives and to clean; the wood block itself showed some minor cosmetic scratching during use.

$141.90*

Schmidt Brothers Midtown Block

This smaller version of the Downtown Block secured all our knives nicely, though the blade of the slicing knife stuck out a bit. With a base lined with grippy material, this block was very stable. An acrylic guard afforded extra protection against contact with blades but made it a little harder to insert knives and to clean; the wood itself got a little scratched during use.

$67.99*
Recommended with Reservations

Swissmar Bamboo Magnetic Knife Block

This small, scratch-resistant model had a stable, rubber-lined base and could hold all our knives, though the blade of the 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a bit. But inch-long gaps between its small magnets made coverage uneven and forced us to find the magnetic hot spots in order to secure the knives. Its acrylic guard made it safer to use but harder to insert knives and to clean.

$49.93*
Not Recommended

Messermeister Walnut Magnet Block

This handsome block was done in by its shape—a tippy, top-heavy quarter-circle that wasn’t tall or broad enough to keep the blades of three knives from poking out. It lacked a nonslip base, and its extra-strong magnets made it unnerving to attach or remove our heavy cleaver. Finally, it got a bit scratched after extensive use.

$129.95*

Epicurean Standing Knife Rack 12"

This magnetic block sheathed all our knives completely, though with a bit of crowding. But it was hard to insert each knife without hitting the block’s decorative slats on way down, and because the block was light and narrow, it wobbled when bumped. Worse, we couldn’t take it apart, so splatters that hit the interior were there to stay. Additionally, the outside stained easily, and when we wiped it down, the unit smelled like wet dog.

$99.95*

Kapoosh Rondelle Knife Block

This model stabilized knives with a mass of stiff, spaghetti-like bristles that shed and nicked easily after extensive use, covering our knives with plastic debris. While all our knives fit securely, several of the blades stuck out, making this unit feel less safe overall. Finally, though the bristles could be removed and cleaned in the dishwasher, their nooks and crannies made this block hard to wash by hand.

$24.99*

Kuhn Rikon Vision Knife Block, Clear

This plastic block required us to aim each knife into the folds of an accordion-pleated insert that was removable for easy cleaning but got nicked easily with repeated use. Because we could only insert the knives vertically, longer knife blades stuck out; a cleaver was too wide to fit. The lightest model in our lineup, this block was dangerously top-heavy when loaded with knives.

$35.88*