The Best Pepper Mills for Your Kitchen

Twist your way to fragrant, flavorful meals with a pepper mill at your fingertips.

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The Best Pepper Mill Options

Photo: depositphotos.com

A dash of freshly ground pepper is the final touch to many savory recipes. A pepper mill opens up the flavor of peppercorn in ways a pre-ground substitute cannot. In addition to grinding pepper, salt, and other spices, pepper mills often add a statement of design to the kitchen or dining table. As a result, shoppers will find an array of pepper mills and grinders on the market, and the selection can be overwhelming. We’ve narrowed down the choices for the best pepper mill to help you complete your dinner preparations.

Types of Pepper Mills

There are two types of pepper mills: manual and electric. The quality of the grind is largely the same, so the decision is based on personal style preference and how you plan to use the mill.

  • Manual pepper mills are operated by twisting two connected parts of the mill in opposite directions or turning a crank while holding the base steady. The twisting action turns the internal gears against each other and either crushes or slices the individual peppercorns into tiny pieces according to your set coarseness. The manual grind gives you more control over the speed and precision for the amount of pepper you’re adding, as you can stop instantly and restart with no lag time. Manual mills tend to have a more traditional appearance and are available in a wide range of styles, and there’s no danger of batteries running out at an inconvenient moment. Cooks who have limited mobility in their hands may find these grinders difficult to use, and those who often add spices to food as they’re cooking and stirring may find the two-handed grip bothersome.
  • Electric Pepper Mills: Electric pepper mills are operated by a pushbutton or pressure trigger to engage a motor that grinds the peppercorns to your preferred coarseness. The motor is powered by batteries; some are rechargeable, some require replacement, so the fun and convenience can be rudely interrupted if you don’t have spare batteries nearby at the wrong moment. Because of their continuous power, electric mills tend to grind a bit more consistently—there’s no starting and stopping to reposition your hands—but you also have to anticipate when you’ll want to stop adding the pepper, as there’s often a moment between when you release the button and when the motor stops dispensing. Electric mills are ideal for cooks with limited hand or arm strength and cooks who need to keep stirring or tossing as they add their pepper with one hand.

What to Consider When Choosing the Best Pepper Mill

Pepper mills of both types are available in a myriad of sizes, shapes, and sets, but there are some additional considerations to think about before making a purchase.

Style

Pepper mills can be traditional or ultramodern. Some are classic, sleekly turned wood with a shapely profile, while others are ornate with heavy metalwork, and still others are streamlined with crisp modern lines. Mills are available in many colors of naturally finished wood, paint, and metalwork. Some are simple utilitarian plastic, as well. With so many options, it’s easy to find one that suits your style—or a workhorse for the kitchen and a pretty one for the table.

Size

Pepper mills can range from a dainty 4 inch size to a showstopping 24 inches. The size of the mill has no effect on the quality of the grind, but it can certainly change the look of the device. If adding pepper is the final flourish on a meal served at table, a tall, elegant mill might be the best choice, while on a kitchen counter a tall piece will be more easily knocked over.

Capacity

Does it matter how much a pepper mill can hold? Yes and no. If you’ve chosen the mill for decorative reasons and its capacity is smaller than you’d like, the small capacity will not affect the quality of the grind—it just means you’ll be refilling the mill more often. A larger capacity mill will be more convenient in that regard, but if the pepper is in the mill for a long time, several problems can occur. The pepper can grow stale, because the mills, unless specified, are not airtight. Also, if your pepper mill is stored in a moist environment (like a kitchen) the peppercorns can pull in moisture from the air and become softened, which will make the grinder less effective and result in uneven flakes of pepper or clogging. If you use a lot of pepper, or if the mill you’re looking at notes that the container is airtight, then a large-capacity mill is just fine.

Adjustability

Different recipes can call for specific fine or coarse grinds of pepper. For example, grinding pepper into a soup requires a finer grind so the flavor can disperse, where grinding on top of a salad might call for larger grains so the diner gets a bigger pop of flavor with each bite. Most modern pepper mills have an option to adjust the grind from fine to coarse. Some have many settings, some just two or three. There are some mills preset to what the manufacturer feels is a reasonable midpoint. Consider how important this feature is to you when shopping, and check to see that the settings, if present, are easy to adjust.

Versatility

Many pepper mills are not limited to pepper: they can also grind salts and other spices and seeds such as coriander, parsley, and cumin, along with some crystal sugars. While many of these spices are sold pre-ground, like pepper, they taste better when fresh. You can choose a dedicated mill for each spice or clean your mill thoroughly before switching. It is important to note that some pepper mills specify that they are not suited to grinding salt: salt crystals break differently than peppercorns, and some mills indicate that a specific salt grinder would be more appropriate.

Durability

Grinding exerts greater force on the mechanism of a pepper mill. The peppercorns are hard and layered, so the mechanism necessary to crush or cut them puts a strain on any gears that are present and will eventually wear down sharp edges. In addition, some metals are prone to corrosion when exposed to moisture. Carbon steel and ceramic are the most durable materials for grinding mechanisms in terms of both corrosion resistance and edge hardness, and stainless steel is not far behind.

Filling Method

If a mill is difficult to refill, most cooks will use it, then set it aside to refill later. It’s important that your mill be easy to fill through an obvious door, easily-removed cap, or quick unscrew at the bottom. Anything requiring tools will likely be too inconvenient. It’s also helpful when the chamber that holds the peppercorns is clear so you can see when it’s almost time to refill.

Our Top Picks

From a light dusting to a crunchy coarse grind or functional showpiece, we’ve collected the top recommendations.

BEST OVERALL

The Best Pepper Mill Option: Cole & Mason Derwent Pepper Mill
Photo: amazon.com

The Cole & Mason Derwent Pepper Mill’s clean, sophisticated lines will grace any dining table. The Derwent comes in several sleek and modern finishes, including stainless steel, copper, and wood to accent any decor. The mill’s interior features a precision carbon steel mechanism that cracks peppercorns, then shaves them, releasing greater surface area and more intense flavor to food. Six settings allow users to customize the size of the grind from coarse to extra-fine, with just a few smooth turns of the grinding mechanism. The Derwent is also practical: a clear acrylic center section shows users when the mill needs to be refilled, which simply requires popping the top off the mill and adding peppercorns. A coordinating salt mill is also available for purchase separately. The modestly-priced Cole & Mason Derwent offers precision and elegance in a single unit, making it our top recommendation.

BATTERY-POWERED PICK

The Best Pepper Mill Option: Latent Epicure Salt and Pepper Grinder Set
Photo: amazon.com

The twist action required by manual pepper mills can be trying on the wrist, while some cooks want to add pepper to a dish while stirring. Latent Epicure solves these problems with one-handed, battery-operated grinding. The Latent Epicure set includes a matching salt grinder and a clear tray that holds both pieces, serving as a catch-all for the fine salt and pepper dust that normally accumulates on the counter. An adjustment knob on the bottom of the mill allows for customizable grind size. The grinder’s mechanism is ceramic, rather than the traditional metal; this is an important feature in humid regions or when grinding peppercorns with higher moisture content, as the ceramic will not rust. One touch of a button operates the mill, and the built-in LED light illuminates food to prevent over-seasoning. Cooks will need to purchase non-rechargeable batteries—each mill requires four AA-sized—for the Latent Epicure pieces to function.

TRADITIONAL PICK

The Best Pepper Mill Option: Zassenhaus Speyer Pepper Mill
Photo: amazon.com

A beautiful and functional conversation piece, the Zassenhaus Speyer Pepper Mill has the appearance of an antique on the table. Based on a design over 100 years old, The Zassenhaus is a truly traditional German-made pepper mill. The Zassenhaus is lathe-turned from solid beechwood then stained, standing around five inches tall. The patented ceramic grinding mechanism is stronger than carbon steel and will never corrode. Cooks choose from six levels of coarseness using a small dial, then turn the crank to dispense the evenly-ground pepper. Filling is easily accomplished by unscrewing the top crank and pouring in peppercorns. For a combination of old-school craftsmanship and superior performance, the Zassenhaus is a great selection.

UPGRADE PICK

The Best Pepper Mill Option: Pepper Mill Imports Atlas 10” Pepper Grinder
Photo: amazon.com

The Atlas 10” Pepper Grinder is made in Greece using traditional methods of centuries past. At first glance, the Atlas looks like a piece of art with its engraved, brass and copper construction. The heavy-duty burr grinder doesn’t crack the peppercorns, it truly grinds them. This results in a finer grind and limits the Atlas to a fine-medium grind range, so cooks looking for cracked peppercorns or coarser grinds will not find this tool useful. The precision of the fine grind (not to mention the good looks) makes this mill an excellent choice for cooks interested in a more refined flavor.

BEST BANG FOR THE BUCK

The Best Pepper Mill Option: OXO Good Grips Lewis Pepper Mill
Photo: amazon.com

Simple in appearance but supremely functional, the OXO Good Grips Lewis Pepper Mill is worthy of recommendation regardless of budget. The mill’s large, nonslip crank knob results in easy turning without an unwieldy appearance, thanks to a carefully tapered shape. The ceramic grinder mechanism is adjustable from a very fine grind to a coarse or cracked grind, and the clear door pops open easily for refilling. The OXO also includes a cap tray to prevent pepper dust from accumulating underneath, adding an additional feature to this reasonably priced piece.

FAQs About Your New Pepper Mill

Q: Is a pepper mill sharp out of the box?

A: Yes, pepper mills should be sharp right out of the box. The materials used to construct the grinding mechanism—usually carbons steel or ceramic—will be sharpened and honed during the manufacturing process and are designed to retain their sharpness for a long time.

If your pepper mill is not performing as expected and you feel that it might be dull, it’s possible that the peppercorns inside the mill have absorbed moisture and softened. If that has happened, even the sharpest grinder will mash the peppercorns instead of grinding or slicing. Peppercorns can easily be re-dried by removing them from the grinder and giving them a quick toast in a low oven or frying pan, then replacing them.

Q: Do all pepper mills have adjustable coarseness settings?

A: Some pepper mills simply deliver ground pepper at a fixed level of coarseness. This can be the case with some inexpensive mills, or it can occur in mills made by specialty pepper mill manufacturers who feel they have identified the “ideal” grind for your pepper. Most often, however, mills will offer at least two to three (sometimes as many as twelve) settings from fine to coarse, and most will have indicators on the adjustment to help you find the right setting. Check the product description for details: some mills can only grind from medium to coarse and cannot produce a truly fine grind.

Q: How do I clean a pepper mill?

A: Cleaning a pepper mill will depend on the material from which it is made. The outside can usually be wiped clean with a soft cloth, dampened if necessary with a little warm water and soap. Unless specifically indicated by the manufacturer, pepper mills should never be submerged in water or run through the dishwasher—there are too many sensitive parts that simply cannot be dried. The inside of a mill should be dusted out occasionally with a soft dry brush. If you are changing the spice you’re grinding, first run a bit of coarse salt through the grinder: the salt will absorb the oils from the previous spice and leave the mechanism sharp and clean.

If the grinder has become clogged, you may need to disassemble the mill to really get into the mechanism and clean it out. First remove the batteries (if it’s an electric mill) and the peppercorns. Find the metal retainer plate that covers the grinding mechanism and use a screwdriver to remove it, which will reveal the grinding mechanism. Using a clean toothpick, remove any stuck particles and check carefully for broken sections, because a mill with broken bits in the grinder is unsafe to continue using. Then swipe the interior of the grinder with a cotton swab dipped in alcohol—this will remove dust and oils, then dry quickly. Reassemble the mill and refill with fresh, dry peppercorns.

Always defer to the manufacturer’s specific instructions: mills made of wood or metal may have specific cleaning and maintenance requirements.

Q: Will a pepper mill work for salt?

A: Some can. It depends on the composition of the salt and the material used to make the grinding mechanism. Salt is, by its nature, corrosive. The grinding mechanism in most pepper mills is made from hardened steel or ceramic. Ceramic mills resist corrosion and are capable of grinding most salts, while steel grinders can rust or corrode from constant contact with the salt.

Some salts are too delicate to withstand the heavier grinding mechanism of a pepper mill.
Pepper grinders have large and small grooves. In effect, the large grooves line up the peppercorns and crack them whilst the small grooves then carry out a fine grinding. The grinding head fits inside an outer ring and because there are different numbers of teeth and grooves, they don’t lock together. Some salts, especially larger-grained salts, should flake, not grind and crush. Those salts would just be pulverized by a heavy pepper grinder and their flavor negatively impacted.

If you’re interested in grinding salt, first check the salt itself to see if grinding suggestions are offered, then look for grinders designated as salt mills—they offer a slightly gentler grinding mechanism and are always made of either ceramic or a specially treated steel mechanism to resist corrosion.