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Pepper Mills

Published August 2019

How we tested

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.

Top-Loading Mills Were Easier to Fill

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 to keep our results consistent. 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.

Clearly Marked Grind Settings Were Crucial

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. 

Grind Size Was Generally Satisfactory

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.

Ease of Grinding

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.

The Best Pepper Mill: Cole & Mason Derwent Pepper Mill

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.


Methodology

We purchased seven pepper mills, priced from about $25 to about $50. We emptied the mills of peppercorns (if they came with them) and filled all the mills with the same brand of peppercorns to ensure consistency across all the tests. We ground pepper at different settings in all the models, asked three additional testers to use each mill and provide feedback, and performed durability tests. We also conducted a taste test of peppercorns ground with our previous winner and peppercorns ground with its redesigned version to see if we could discern any flavor differences between the two.  

RATING CRITERIA

Ease of Use: Mills that were easy to load and whose grinding mechanisms rotated smoothly were rated highest

Grind Quality: Mills that produced accurately sized fine-, medium-, and coarse-ground pepper were given top marks

Grind Settings: Models with clearly marked grind settings received highest marks


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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*