3 Best Pepper Mills of 2020: PepperMate, Cole & Mason, and More

Emily Johnson, Lukas Volger, Janet Rausa Fuller

We set out to find the best pepper mills because freshly ground pepper is a kitchen essential. No matter what you're cooking, it packs powerful flavor and aroma that you can't get from using pre-ground pepper. And yet, pepper mills—seemingly simple kitchen tools—are prone to going dull and breaking. Plus, some can be a pain to refill, leaving peppercorns all over your kitchen floor.

With our eyes on a perfectly functional pepper grinder, we tested 18 manual models to find the best pepper mill for home use. Ahead, read about our top picks. For the specifics on how we tested each grinder and the criteria we looked for, scroll to the bottom of the page.

The Best Classic Pepper Mill: Cole & Mason Ardingly Wood Pepper Grinder

This pepper grinder has six distinct coarseness settings that can be adjusted easily via a rotating piece of metal at the base of the mill. In our tests, each setting produced a distinct and uniform grind, from very fine to course. The grinding mechanism is made of sharp stainless steel and the settings are easy to adjust, unlike mills that adjust via the metal knob at the top of the mill.

This grinder is fairly traditional in appearance, but the metal ring on the bottom makes it slightly less classic than a uniform wooden pepper mill, like a Peugeot. It's comfortable to twist at the top, and best of all, it's easier to refill than a standard Peugeot. You can remove the top simply by pulling it off—there's no need to twist the metal top piece off. While the opening at the top is still very narrow, making spillage possible when refilling, the ease of removing the top makes up for that inconvenience. We recommend using a funnel, or turning a piece of paper into a funnel to direct your pepper smoothly into the mill. The grinder is made of durable materials, and the metal grinding mechanism stayed sharp after heavy use.

The mill has a lifetime warranty. Reviewers on Amazon generally report that the pepper mill lasts. Overall, this is a classic, high-quality pepper mill with two modern updates: easily adjustable grind settings and an easier refilling system.

Cole & Mason Ardingly Wood Pepper Grinder

$45.00, Amazon

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The Best Pepper Mill for Precision and Tidiness: PepperMate Pepper Mill

Anyone who occasionally needs to measure their freshly ground black pepper knows how tedious the task can be using a standard pepper mill. The PepperMate Pepper Mill deserves special acknowledgement because this mill grinds directly into a compartment that attaches to its base. You can easily snap the compartment off and scoop from the container filled with ground pepper with a teaspoon, making it the best pepper mill for measuring an exact amount of freshly ground pepper. And since the base is easily removable, you can opt to grind without it and grind pepper directly over a plate or skillet when you don't care about measuring the exact amount.

It also gets bonus points for being the best pepper mill for keeping things tidy. It left no stray pepper behind on the counter every time we set it down. And it is by far the easiest pepper mill to refill. While the coarseness adjustment (a twisting dial at the top of the machine) is a little confusing at first, it becomes intuitive fairly quickly, and its coarseness settings offer a wide range of consistent grinds.

The grinder's blade is ceramic, rather than the typical stainless steel, which means it's likely to dull faster than its metal counterparts—however, the grinder does come with a lifetime warranty.

PepperMate Pepper Mill

$35.00, Amazon

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The Best Pepper Mill For Sheer Maximum Pepper Output: Unicorn Magnum Pepper Mill

The Unicorn Magnum has legions of enthusiastic fans across the internet, and it is the pepper mill we use in our test kitchen at Epicurious.

While its coarseness adjustor (a thumbscrew on the bottom of the grinder) is clunky and takes some time to get used to, this grinder's pepper output is notable—it really generates notably more ground pepper per crank than any of the others we tested! We also love its stylish design, which makes it an accent piece fit for modern-leaning kitchens. It’s also so comfortable to hold and use thanks to the smooth, sleek material. And it's significantly easier to refill than most other models—you turn it on its side and then twist open a round door that’s large enough to fit a standard teaspoon (no mini-funnel needed). It smartly comes with a matching coaster for the mill to nestle in when it’s not in use, which helps keep the little dusting of pepper that so often collects on the countertop contained.

Unicorn Magnum Pepper Mill

$40.00, Amazon

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How We Tested Pepper Grinders

As you can guess, the test was pretty straightforward—we ground a lot of pepper. We first tested 18 manual grinders. In testing, we first used each mill to grind piles of pepper together in the Epicurious test kitchen. Then, we brought the grinders home and used them over the course of several weeks to see how they held up after extended use. Still, this wasn't a totally comprehensive way to test longevity, so we did external research about how these models held up, based on user reviews on Amazon and tests done on other sites. We also refilled each mill to compare the ease of filling the machines up with peppercorns—aiming for minimal spilling. If available, we tested the adjustable coarseness settings to see how effective they were. We did not test electric pepper mills, as we think manual ones are best for most home cooks. For each pepper grinder, we also examined the following factors.

Is the pepper mill sharp out of the box?

We wanted a mill that effectively ground pepper straight out of the box. Pepper mills typically have either metal or ceramic grinding mechanisms. After preliminary research and testing, we found that a metal mechanism is sharper and leads to a more even grind. Metal is also more durable and less prone to dulling than ceramic.

Does the pepper mill have adjustable coarseness settings? Does it achieve an even grind?

It was important to us that the pepper mill had adjustable settings that allowed for both coarse and fine grinds—and options in between. Sometimes you want crunchy flecks of pungent pepper. Other times you want a smooth grind that blends well with salt and disappears into a dish. A good pepper mill will allow for a range of coarseness, with each setting producing a uniform grind.

Traditionally, you adjust the grind of a pepper mill by twisting and untwisting the metal knob at the top. We found this to be an imprecise way of making an adjustment because it's hard to tell exactly how far to twist forward and backward to get your desired grind. Many new pepper mill designs (including the classic Peugeot that used to have a screw knob) have labeled adjustable settings on the bottom of the mill. We found pepper mills with this functionality to be preferable and easier to figure out because you just twist the bottom of the mill to land on one of the settings, which range from coarse to fine.

Is the pepper mill easy to use?

A classic pepper mill operates by twisting the top portion of the mill, which activates the rotating blade at the bottom of the mill via a metal rod. The pepper gets pushed down and rotated through the blade. However, some models we tested operated by twisting a metal crank or by pushing down on a lever. In our testing, we found that the classic method of twisting at the top was the most comfortable and easy to use.

How easy is it to refill the pepper mill?

Generally, pepper mills have a narrow opening that handles refills best when you place no more than one to three peppercorns delicately in the hole at once—any more risks major spillage. Refilling the mill also involves unscrewing the metal knob at the top and placing it aside—it's a small thing but we found it inconvenient to remove the small metal piece and keep track of it while refilling. Ideally, a pepper mill will have a wider opening so you can pour a steady stream of peppercorns in at once, without requiring you to remove the metal knob. We tested some mills that refilled from the front, some from the bottom, and some that could be refilled without removing the metal top.

What's the design like?

In addition to being functional, pepper mills have a place on the dining table and should therefore look nice. We wanted one that was a pretty and functional piece of servingware.

Also, pepper mills that have clear storage containers for the pepper should be largely avoided because peppercorns do lose their flavor—even after a month or two. They need to be stored in a dark place, so grinders that don't expose them to light are better.

Other Pepper Mills We Tested

  • Peugeot is as classic as a pepper mill gets: the French brand didn't invent the contraption, but its pepper mills were certainly some of the earliest designs on the market. The mill is made of quality wood and has a stainless steel pepper grinder. And, it's been updated to have six adjustable grind settings on the bottom and a twisting mechanism similar to the Cole & Mason. Even though it performed well, it didn't make our top ranking because the model still requires you to unscrew the top and remove the metal piece in order to refill. It's just not that convenient. However, this is a trusted brand that includes a lifetime warranty on the grinding mechanism and five-year warranty on the body of the mill.

  • Another pepper mill that performed well in our test was the Fletcher's Mill model. It has a sharp grinding mechanism and is one of the prettiest models we tested, made of sleek cherry wood with a nice hourglass shape. The pepper mill does require you to remove the metal piece on top when refilling, but its opening is much larger than Peugeot's, making it much easier to pour peppercorns in without spillage. However, the major dock against this model is that its adjustable grind settings can only be changed via the metal piece on the top. It's imprecise and difficult to know what grind you're getting. Still, it's pretty, functional, and made of quality materials. It's also made in America, using sustainable wood practices.

  • We liked that the OXO Good Grips Pepper Grinder and the OXO Lua Pepper Grinder have large openings at the bottom for refilling the mill. The lid to each opening twists off easily, and the wide mouth means that it's easy to pour peppercorns in without the use of a funnel. However, both mills are made of a combination of plastics and metals, so they feel cheap—and the peppercorns are exposed to light since the plastic chamber that holds them is see-through.

  • We also tried two Kuhn Rikon models: one with a metal chand crank that you rotate to grind the pepper, and one with a plastic lever that you push up and down. We preferred the clastic twisting motion in terms of comfort and ease-of-use.

  • We tried two additional Cole & Mason models, the Derwent Pepper Grinder and the Dark Beech Wood Pepper Mill. Both performed well, but the first has a transparent body that exposes the pepper to light. The second has adjustable grind settings only via the metal top knob and doesn't have an easily removable lid like our top choice.

  • Finally, we had high hopes for the Menu Pepper Grinder Set because it's stylish and easy to refill with a wide mouth and a twist-off top, but it is only available as part of a set that includes a salt grinder. And, though it claims to have adjustable grind settings, they aren't easy to figure out and don't work well.

The Takeaway

For a classic model at a reasonable price, choose the Cole & Mason. It's fairly easy to refill, has effective grind settings, and is sharp and built to last. If you frequently need to measure freshly ground pepper in exact amounts, choose the PepperMate Pepper Mill. For a more distinctive but equally functional design—and a pepper mill that boasts an impressive output per crank—the Unicorn Magnum is a widely loved model that’ll serve all your cacio e pepe cravings well.

Why Grind Pepper, Anyway?

Pre-ground pepper saves time, sure, but freshly ground pepper yields so much more flavor. Buy whole peppercorns and grind them yourself whenever possible. The flavor of a peppercorn is contained within its walls. Once you bust down those walls by grinding it, all those volatile oils come rushing out and are subject to losing flavor over time (just like coffee).

The longer ground pepper sits, the more flavor slips away, which explains the lackluster quality of a typical supermarket jar. “Who knows how long ago they ground that stuff,” says Tom Erd, co-owner of the Spice House.

Types of Peppercorns

Peppercorns are the berries of the piper nigrum plant, which is native to India, the world’s top producer (and consumer) of pepper and the source of what spice experts like Erd consider the best peppercorns around. The other tropical regions where peppercorns thrive include Indonesia, Brazil, and Vietnam, which leads in exports.

Peppercorns grow in clusters on vines like tiny grapes and ripen at varying rates, so harvesting them is tricky and time-consuming. But oh, the payoff.

Black, green, and white peppercorns are just different versions of the same fruit. Like any berry, they all start out green and turn red as they ripen. The longer they stay on the vine, the more flavor they develop.

Black Peppercorns

<div class="caption"> Black peppercorns are harvested just before they’re fully ripe. </div> <cite class="credit">Photo by Romulo Yanes</cite>
Black peppercorns are harvested just before they’re fully ripe.
Photo by Romulo Yanes

Black peppercorns are harvested just before they’re fully ripe. They darken as they dry, developing that deeply aromatic pepper flavor.

Green Peppercorns

Green peppercorns are picked early, while still green. To retain their color, they’re either blanched and dried, pickled in brine, or freeze-dried. They taste fresh and vibrant or, as Erd says, “young.”

White Peppercorns

White peppercorns are black peppercorns with the shells removed, either by soaking in water or rubbing dry. Neither method is cheaper or necessarily better than the other, but your nose can tell them apart. The water-soaked method produces a white peppercorn with a distinct fermented flavor after drying. It’s not for everyone, but it’s favored for certain dishes where the pepper flavor but not the color is wanted.

Pink Peppercorns

Pink Peppercorn Bacon

Pink Peppercorn Bacon
Pink Peppercorn Bacon
Paula Disbrowe

Bon Appétit

While the three varieties above all come from the same plant, pink peppercorns are the dried berries of a shrub native to South America. They have a sweet, delicate flavor and are used as much for their looks as for their bite.

Szechuan Peppercorns

Sichuan or Szechuan peppercorns are also not technically "pepper". Famed for their numbing effect on the tongue, these aromatic seed husks come from the Chinese prickly ash tree. They’re actually not hot on their own but are often combined with chiles in Sichuan cooking.

Steer Clear of Five-Peppercorn Blends

<div class="caption"> Don't buy a peppercorn blend that contains allspice–it might jam your mill. </div> <cite class="credit">Photo by Shutterstock</cite>
Don't buy a peppercorn blend that contains allspice–it might jam your mill.
Photo by Shutterstock

Black, white, green, and pink peppercorns are often sold as a blend, which looks nifty if you have a clear spice mill. But Erd cautions against what’s sold as a five-peppercorn blend because of that fifth element: allspice.

“Allspice berries are too big to fall in between the grinding burrs, so they’ll jam up your mill,” he says. “It’s silly, and it’s the spice companies trying to cut costs.”

Store Peppercorns in Dry, Airtight Containers

Dry and airtight—that’s the key to keeping whole peppercorns around. They’ll last for several years that way. If you have extra freshly ground pepper around, use it up within a week.

Watch Now: Epicurious Video.

Originally Appeared on Epicurious

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