Salt and pepper are the most fundamental of seasonings, so fundamental that we seldom give them any thought. Yet treating them as equally generic is a mistake, because they're very different. Salt is a mineral, and while there are certainly many different kinds of salt, any one salt will remain the same with the passage of time. As long as you protect it from melding into a solid lump, you're good to go.
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Pepper is entirely different, because it's a dried fruit and, as with any other fruit, freshness is important. Ground pepper in a shaker eventually deteriorates into a dusty, bitter, vaguely hot substance with minimal flavor. It pales in contrast to pepper that's freshly ground from whole peppercorns, hitting your food while the volatile compounds that give it flavor are still at their best. That's why no well-equipped kitchen should be without a pepper mill or grinder, to give you that premium experience every time. Here are a few of our favorites.
What to Consider When Purchasing a Pepper Mill or Grinder
For a relatively low-tech device that performs one simple task, there's a lot to consider when buying a pepper mill. One obvious factor is aesthetics since it's going to live on your table or counter all day, every day. You might favor the traditional wooden "chess pawn" look, or something more sleek and industrial, or perhaps even one of the mega-grinders that sweating servers tote from table to table at your neighborhood steak house.
A few other noteworthy factors you'll need to account for include:
Grinder Mechanism: The very best mills have a two-stage grinding process: The first one breaks up the peppercorns, and then the second stage reduces those fragments to the desired grind. Don't expect to find this kind of mechanism outside of the premium grinders. Another point to consider is the material used in the grinder. Stainless steel, hardened steel and ceramic are all common choices, and all work pretty well. One thing to remember is that steel mechanisms, while great for pepper, will rust if used for salt. If you want a matched set for both uses, ceramic is your best choice.
Operation: Most traditional grinders work by twisting, which can be problematic mid-cook if your hands are wet or greasy. Some use a crank, which can be easier but means you're likely to spray pepper everywhere. If you suffer from carpal tunnel, arthritis or other physical challenges, you might want to look for alternatives—including mills designed for one-handed operation with alternative mechanisms (i.e. a ratchet crank, rather than a rotary motion) or a model that's operated by an electric motor.
Capacity and Ease of Filling: These two details are closely related. When you're considering any pepper mill, find out how much pepper it holds and how much of a pain it'll be to refill. Mills might hold anywhere from a couple of tablespoons to a full cup (1/4 cup is the most common); while some have wide openings for easy refilling but others will result in a lot of frustration and spilled peppercorns. This is a definite tradeoff. If a given grinder holds enough pepper that you don't need to refill it very often, you could conceivably overlook the inconvenience.
Speed and Consistency of Grind: Producing consistently ground pepper is one of the most important things a grinder does, and some are much better at it than others. It matters: The last thing you want is a big slab of peppercorn frying your tastebuds while you're savoring a delicate sauce. Speed and volume of grinding are less important when you're thinking in terms of seasoning your own plate of food, but come into play if you're grinding a lot of pepper while prepping a dish.
The Best Overall Pepper Grinder
Peugeot Paris Classic, 8 3/4-inch
When you picture a pepper grinder in your head, this is the one you're probably imagining. It's the classic wooden grinder, from the classic French manufacturer, and it remains the benchmark that others are measured by. The two-stage grinder cracks the peppercorns first for the best flavor and consistency, and the six settings—fine to coarse—produce impeccably consistent ground pepper. The mechanism turns freely and smoothly, and this size holds a quarter-cup of peppercorns. There are also smaller 4- and 7-inch versions, and a larger 12-inch model, which hold varying amounts of peppercorns but work equally well. Available finishes include natural beech, a dark "graphite" color and stainless steel.
Pro tip: Peugeot sells its grinder mechanisms to other companies, so it's sometimes possible—with a bit of diligent digging—to find an off-brand grinder with a Peugeot mechanism at an attractive price point.
The "Ultimate Splurge" Pepper Grinder
Männkitchen MK32144 Pepper Cannon
At first blush, the name sounds like an exercise in machismo, but according to the company's site "Männkitchen" simply means "my kitchen" in Old Norse. It's an easy mistake to make, though, because this thing is an unqualified beast. The body is milled from high-grade aluminum and then anodized to give it a sleek (and non-corroding) surface. The grinders are made of hardened steel, but more importantly, their proprietary design churns out a truly impressive quantity of pepper on every turn. Even better, the consistency is near-perfect from the finest to the coarsest settings. If you routinely apply fresh pepper to entire pork butts or beef briskets, you need this grinder. The grinder's half-cup peppercorn capacity is twice that of most other grinders, but you'll need it.
The Best Budget Pepper Grinder
OXO Good Grips Radial Pepper Grinder
Pepper grinders using a crank, rather than a twisting motion, have been around for a long time. They have a couple of advantages: For one thing, they give you better leverage than the twist type and they can also be easier to use with slippery (or arthritic) hands. This inexpensive grinder from OXO, with a crank and non-slip handle, is a perfect example. For the price, it gives you a lot. Pepper is stored in a clear compartment (so you can see whether it's full), the compartment simply flips out for easy filling, and the ceramic grinding mechanism won't rust if you want a second one for salt. It's adjustable through multiple levels of fineness and delivers a level of consistency that rivals grinders selling for much, much more.
The Best Compact Pepper Grinder
Kuhn Rikon Table Vase Mini
Sometimes you want a big, stylish grinder that makes a statement; sometimes you want something small and functional for everyday use. This diminutive model from Kuhn Rikon definitely fits into the second category. It's a thoroughly practical piece of equipment: Despite standing less than 5 inches high, it holds a full cup of peppercorns—four times as much as most competitive models—and it's supremely easy to fill. The ceramic grinder works for salt and other spices as well as pepper, and could even be used for grinding ingredients like flax or chia into your meals. The grind is reasonably consistent across the full range from fine to coarse, though not competitive with top-end rivals. One nice detail is that it grinds from the top, not the bottom, and therefore won't leave pepper on your counter or table.
The Best One-Handed Pepper Grinder
Dreamfarm Ortwo Pepper Grinder
There are times when it's super helpful to have the option of grinding your pepper one-handed, while stirring, basting or flipping your food with the other. At those moments, a grinder like this Dreamfarm model is just what the doctor ordered. You can use it with one hand for convenience, or two for higher-volume grinding (hence the name), as needed. The ceramic grinder provides a consistent grind, and the quarter-cup peppercorn reservoir couldn't be easier to fill: It's just a wide-mouth glass jar, very much like a Mason jar. If you weren't looking to spend this much, there's also an Ortwo Lite at a lower price (and the Chef'n PepperBall is a cheap and cheerful alternative).
The Best Electric Pepper Grinder
Cuisinart SG-3 Rechargeable Salt, Pepper and Spice Mill
You can find lots of other electric grinders that are bigger, smaller, faster, slower, cheaper or pricier, but we think this one from Cuisinart hits the sweet spot of style and usability. It's actually two grinders in one sleek, brushed-steel package, so you can have salt at one end and pepper at the other, or have two different types of peppercorns on tap at once. The unit includes a rechargeable battery and charges through the provided stand, so it's always ready to go. The provided dust cap (for whichever end is uppermost while it's on the stand) doubles as a 1-teaspoon measure for when you're cooking. Grinding is fast, effortless (even one-handed) and provides a consistent end result. The grinder itself is heavier than many others, because of the battery and motor, but because it works so quickly it's still a solid choice for those whose strength or dexterity is impaired.