As much as a gourmet chef might make use of exotic ingredients and unique spices, you still can’t get very far in any recipe without needing the basics: salt and pepper.
Although these staples are found on kitchen tables across the world, they are far from boring when executed in the proper way. How’s that? By using salt and pepper that are freshly ground, of course!
Part of the reason that freshly ground spices are important is that, once spices are ground, they begin to oxidize and quickly start to lose their potency. This means you may need to use a larger amount of pre-ground spices, whereas you will need less freshly ground pepper, potentially saving you money and protecting your cooking from stale spices.
Using a salt or pepper mill might seem a little inconvenient at first, especially when most households and restaurants tend to opt for the standard shaker set, filled with pre-ground salt and pepper. Before spice mills became commonly available for household use, spices were freshly ground in a mortar and pestle, allowing the user to simply crush them by hand.
This is still an option today, of course. But unless you have your own prep cook or sous chef at home, you may want to consider a manually operated pepper or salt grinder instead, which can bring excellent results faster and with less mess.
Making regular use of a grinder for your coarse salt or peppercorns will provide an added touch of class and raise your standards for food preparation. Freshly grinding spices allows the aroma and flavors to be released immediately prior to use, creating a fresher and fuller flavor that can elevate average, ho-hum cooking to the realm of flavorful gourmet meals.
Foodal’s Top Picks
1. The Unicorn Magnum Plus. Although Cook’s Illustrated bumped the Unicorn Magum Plus from first place in their last review (at the time of this writing), we found that it is still a great selection. It remains Foodal’s #1 choice in terms of performance, value, speed, and ease of use, and we love the fact that it is made on Nantucket Island of US and Italian sourced parts. Its synthetic casing also ensures that it’s impervious to moisture penetration and most falls.
2. The Peugeot Paris U’Select. By far the easiest unit to fill and also one of the better choices for an extra fine grind, this model is made in France by the same company that invented the modern peppermill over 160 years ago. We liked everything about this model: decent speed, not made in China, aesthetically pleasing (its wooden construction is available in many types and in different sizes), and it’s easy to adjust the coarseness mechanism.
3. The Perfex. We love this grinder with its beefy aluminum construction and its lifetime warranty. It’s very easy to dial in the exact grind that you want. It’s also made by a small family-owned company in France, which brings us to the only real issue with this model – should it need to be repaired or serviced (which is rare), it must be sent to France, and can be somewhat difficult for North American English speakers to get in touch with the company.
4. The Cole and Mason Derwent Precision. This model features carbon steel burrs and a stainless and glass construction that gives a more modern take on an old classic. Its carbon steel burrs allow for precision grinding and we loved the fact that its adjustment mechanism actually features a scale, for less trial and error when hunting for a particular coarseness setting. Unfortunately it is not without its flaws, which kept it out of the top three.
5. OXO Good Grips. By far the best budget pick, OXOs are very high quality considering their low cost. Chinese manufacturing, but with excellent quality control. OXO is the go-to brand for various kitchen utensils that work well without spending a small fortune, and their salt and pepper mills are no exception. The OXOs feature one of the easiest to turn and operate mechanisms on the market, and approach that of our number 1 pick for ease of use.
6. The Atlas. Similar in build to a Greek or Turkish coffee grinder and probably built in the same factory, the Atlas is a hefty chunk of metal that will keep you in fresh pepper for years to come. Available in solid brass, copper, or a chrome steel, adding one of these to your kitchen or dining room table will bring in a touch of the Mediterranean to your foodie endeavors. The only issue with this model is its lack of adjustability in the coarseness setting.
7. Sage Kitchenware. Many salt mills cannot handle moisture-dense salt like pink Himalayan and other similar varieties. In fact, many mills specifically warn against using this type of salt, as it will gum up the grinding mechanism. However, we’ve found that the Sage can grind these types of salt with ease. With a ceramic burr set and a no-hassle full lifetime replacement warranty, this one should make any discerning consumer happy.
Choosing a Salt or Pepper Mill
While choosing a specific model may not sound like something that needs deep thought or consideration, it’s best not to simply grab the first one you see on the supermarket or department store shelf. This is particularly true for the pre-filled devices because, not only might the unit be inferior, you also have no idea how old and stale the peppercorns inside are. As a kitchen tool that you will use daily, it is important to purchase a product that is ideal for your intended use and preferences.
There are many more options available than you might think. And all models are certainly not the same. Equipping your kitchen with a good set of salt and pepper mills will be a long-term investment for the future, and you can enjoy them every day for years to come.
Grinders are fairly simple machines with just a few moving parts. The main part is the vessel that holds the whole peppercorns or coarse salt. On the outside, the top of the unit will contain a hand crank that attaches to a spindle, which turns the grinding mechanism inside the device.
When the crank is turned, the peppercorns are pulled onto a burr with teeth that rub together to force the spice to grind into small pieces. This may also be arranged as a head that rotates and grinds the peppercorns or salt granules against a fixed ring. The space between the burrs or the head and ring determines the fineness or coarseness that the spice will have after it is ground.
Considering Salt Grinders
Grinding salt is a slightly different situation than pepper, as salt is not as compatible with metal. If you are planning to grind salt, a ceramic mechanism is likely to work out better than metal will. However, a ceramic mechanism is not nearly as durable as stainless steel varieties, and therefore the grinder may not last as long due to potential shattering or breakage.
You may find that some companies offer a corrosion-resistant metal mechanism that may be effective for a short time, but it still will not be as long-lasting for the purpose of grinding salt as a ceramic mill would be. Himalayan, pink, Celtic, or grey salts may contain more moisture and can cause the grinding burrs to get sticky, so it is helpful to store your salt grinder in a place that has the lowest humidity possible.
What to Look For in Mills
When deciding on a particular model, there are a few points to consider to be sure that you are getting the finest product to suit your cooking needs and desires. Ask yourself some questions in order to help you prioritize which features are more important to you when determining which grinder you should buy:
- Will this be used at home for the family? Will it be stored in the kitchen or on the dining room table? How much capacity do you need for your family?
- Are you using this for a catering company or restaurant? Is efficiency important over style? Do you need a large range of grind consistency options?
- Do you plan to use your grinder for salt or pepper? What kind of mechanism will you need for each?
- Are you looking for a model that matches your other kitchenware or cooking tools?
- How much use will the mill get and how durable do you need it to be?
Examining the quality of the grind mechanism, ability to set coarseness, capacity, ease of use, vessel material, and preferred stylistic details will get you far in deciding which mill is best for you.
A high quality burr mechanism is essential for ensuring that the device provides a consistent grind for many years. Some of the lower quality grinders use acrylic mechanisms, which are significantly inferior to a stainless steel gear system. Honestly, the cheap acrylic mechanisms are not really worth bothering with. Acrylic simply fails to provide the durability and consistency of grind that is offered by the better high-carbon steel or ceramic varieties, leaving you with a lesser product that is much more likely to break (as well as mess with the rate of salt you add to a dish).
If you are going to invest your money in a salt or pepper mill, why get a sub-par model? It is certainly better to invest a few more dollars up front to get a quality unit that is likely to become a long-time friend. While many superior models are made with stainless steel mechanisms, ceramic also has a good history as a product that is often very easy to clean, despite the fact that it is admittedly more delicate.
A truly superior quality salt or pepper mill allows the user to change the fineness or coarseness of the grind, based upon the recipe requirements and the cook’s needs. For instance, the Peugeot Paris U’Select offers six settings of coarseness from very fine to roughly cracked. Mills with clear markings are the easiest to use.
Other devices also allow for altering the grind size, but they may not offer as much consistency without marked settings. This is particularly useful for a pepper mill, but can be handy for grinding salt as well.
Ease of Use
Cooks who spend any amount of time with a sticky grinder in hand could easily find themselves with a nasty case of carpel tunnel syndrome. Making sure your pepper and salt grinders are easy to crank or twist will be a great favor to your wrists, as well as providing convenience and speed in the kitchen. A comfortable grip and smoothly twisting top or crank is an important factor in choosing a new grinder.
Although needing to refill your grinder often may not be a problem for the home cook, if purchasing for a restaurant or catering company, you will certainly want a larger capacity vessel. Smaller devices usually range from 1/8 cup and up, and the largest model could potentially hold up to 1 ½ cups of peppercorns. A small to medium sized mill is probably best for a home kitchen because the spices tend to lose their flavor as they age, and you do not want to leave them sitting around for too long. For those working in bulk, a large capacity unit can be a great benefit.
While performance is critical in ranking these grinding devices, style is also very important for many people. Ranging from traditional wood to sleek and modern versions made from a variety of materials, style is very much based on personal preference.
Peugeot offers the largest variety of color options to match almost any kitchen as well as the traditional wooden pillars, while many other designs by various manufacturers are also pleasing to the eye. Because salt or pepper mills often last a lifetime, the best practice is to choose a timeless classic model that you are not likely to tire of quickly.
Grinders come in a variety of materials, from light to heavy and from fancy to simple. Some traditional models are carved from wood and have a hand-crafted, simple look.
Wood: This is a fairly durable choice, as wood does not break easily when dropped accidentally or banged around in the kitchen. However, wood may be a bit more difficult to ensure that it is clean and disinfected. Steel, copper, or other types of metal grinders bring some shine to the kitchen, but mills made of metal may be heavier and could potentially rust, unless they are aluminum.
Metal: This material is great for durability, but not so great if the chef has hand or wrist troubles and struggles to lift and twist a heavy unit. This type sometimes weighs up to three times what other similarly sized models weigh.
Plastic and Acrylic: The advantage of these materials is that they are quite durable and easy to clean, but they can get brittle over time and crack. These materials do, however, provide a lightweight option, they often come in a variety of bright colors, and they may be trimmed with stainless steel for a sleek, designer look.
Manual or Electric
A manually activated hand mill, whether operated by a crank or simply by turning the top, is typically the better choice for the kitchen. However, there are some folks who struggle with grip or hand strength, and they can benefit from a battery powered version. This may be particularly useful for bulk grinding in restaurants, for extensive prep work, or in some other sort of commercial venue.
In this case, look for a well-balanced battery powered or re-chargeable pepper mill that will provide ease of use by grinding quickly and steadily, but also allowing for coarseness adjustment.
Top Rated Pepper Mills
Considerations for these “best of breed” pepper mills are made based upon durability, ease of use, speed, style, and compactness. As with any kitchen tool or appliance, finding the model that fits your priorities is very much a personal choice. Hopefully some of our top picks will give you guidance as you consider which model will suit your needs.
Best for Durability – The Atlas
Available in copper, chrome or brass, the Atlas Pepper Mill from Pepper Mill Imports is hand built in Greece, using classic methods and durable materials. Sizes range from smaller 7” mills to the larger 9” option. The model stands easily with its flanged base and the handmade all-metal body promises that this design will hold up for many years. In fact, the 300 year history of the company backs the product with a trustworthy reputation.
This model offers inner workings made of durable stainless steel for a fine performance. The main drawback of this unit is that there is no option for a coarse grind. It is, however, excellent for the medium and finer grinds.
Also, the metal is heavier than the wooden or plastic models might be, so going smaller might help to keep the weight down. Since you can expect this product to last for years, the price is quite reasonable when spread out over time. The Atlas is available in brass, copper and chrome and in various different sizes. Click here to read Amazon’s customer reviews and to peruse the color and size selections.
Best Compact Mill – Perfex
The Perfex Crank Pepper Mill is a little powerhouse for those wanting a compact model. Sometimes smaller examples can be a hassle because they need to be refilled so often, but this one is so simple to refill that its miniature size of 4 1/2″ is not a problem. The durable aluminum case provides a sleek metal look without any risk of rust, and it is exceptionally lightweight.
Expertly built with a metal burr grinder and front-loading chute, this model offers classic styling. A “P” or an “S” is stamped on the loading chute, to indicate whether it contains pepper or salt.
Best for Ease of Use – The Unicorn Magnum
The sleek, black design of the Unicorn Magnum Plus Pepper Mill is simple, but its performance for comfort and ease of use redeems its plain appearance. Made from ABS plastic for the 9” tall body and oversized steel for the grinding mechanism, the Unicorn Magnum with extra length allows the user to have better leverage with an easy grinding action. In addition, this model is rather easy to refill with a sliding side-mounted ring for loading.
However, with its 1 ¼ cup capacity, you may not need to refill as often as you would with smaller examples. The Unicorn Magnum Plus is also fairly lightweight, considering its large size and capacity. The bottom thumbscrew allows for grind adjustment but there are no set markings, so consistency can be a bit challenging.
|Unicorn Magnum Pepper Mill 6" Black||Unicorn Magnum Salt Mill 6" White|
This model offers a coarser grind, but other (smaller) units from Unicorn use a standard sized mechanism that grinds a bit more finely. Fairly affordable, Unicorn makes their mills in the USA (with US and Italian-sourced parts). The Unicorn Magnum is also available on Amazon in a smaller 6″ size as shown above.
Best Pepper Mill for Speed – Peugeot
Would you like to find a more traditional looking peppermill that has been updated to perform better than the original? Peugeot is one of the originators of the now classic wooden pepper mill shape, but that doesn’t mean that they have simply rested on their laurels in the innovation department. The Peugeot Paris U’Select allows for five different grind settings that are adjusted right at the base of the shaft.
Moreover, these grind settings actually make a difference, unlike those in many other grinders. The extra fine creates a powder while the most coarse setting lands in about the mid-coarse level (you can’t have everything…).
The milling system within the Peugeot Paris U’Select is made up of two burrs crafted from carbon or stainless steel (dependent on whether it’s a salt or pepper model) that have a pair of differently sized grooves. The bigger groove initially splits the peppercorn, and the smaller sized one handles the fine milling. The Paris U’Select incorporates a twisting knob at the base, which can be preset to six specific grind levels. The Peugeot Paris U’Select is offered in a variety of stained wood colors, or with a solid lacquered finish.
Best See-Through – Cole and Mason Derwent
Clear mills are a style that’s preferred by many people as they may complement their kitchen décor, but the clear grinder also comes in handy for knowing when it is time to refill your spices. The Cole and Mason Derwent Precision Gourmet Pepper Mill is not only made from attractive clear acrylic with stainless steel accents, but this one also offers six pre-set grinding levels for consistency of fineness or coarseness.
Coming in at 7 1/2” tall, the grinder fits easily into the palm and the spring loaded, hardened carbon steel mechanism provides smooth handling. Because the see-through design of this affordable model makes it possible for the peppercorns to be exposed to sunlight, you may want to store this one inside the cabinet to keep the spices from losing their flavor too quickly.
There is some concern voiced by real world users in reviews about the markings for the grind settings rubbing off, so keep this in mind.
Best Mill for Salt – Sage
The ceramic grinding mechanism on this Sage Kitchenware Stainless Steel Salt Mill makes this a trustworthy product that allows you to avoid potentially sticky situations with salt. Created specifically to cut down on problems with moisture, this ceramic model is strong and flexible. Changing coarseness is easy with variable settings, and the secure lock at the bottom means no mess to clean up when the unit is not in use.
Lightweight and sleek in style, the see-through acrylic panel shows the user when the mill needs to be refilled without exposing the entire stock of salt or pepper to sunlight, so there is no risk of losing flavor. Also, because the ceramic grinder mechanism is non-absorbent, you can feel free to change up its use to grind a different spice or dried herb without affecting the flavor, as long as you get it completely emptied and washed between spices.
Affordably priced, this 8 ½” easy-to-fill grinder offers a wide opening at the top, and a wide base to keep it from tipping. A lifetime replacement guarantee from the company makes this a low-risk investment. Read real customer reviews on Amazon now.
Best Affordable Mill – OXO Good Grips
These chunky grinders from OXO are at the top of the budget selections. We like that they are easy to turn, so much that so that even a small child is capable of using one. We also love the fact that they are designed sit on the table or counter with the dispenser facing up, easily avoiding the whole issue of constantly needing to clean up stray spice particles. This is one of the smarter design choices that OXO is famous for (“making the mundane better”).
OXO Good Grips Salt and Pepper Grinder Set available from Amazon
The OXOs look like they are smaller than many other brands; however, many customers reported that they were surprised by how big they actually are. Standing at over 5 ½” tall, they are fairly large, with a large hopper that keeps refills to a minimum.
They aren’t without their flaws. Both the salt and pepper mill are fairly aggressive in their grinds and there is no real fine setting. Instead, there is merely coarse and less coarse. This tendency towards the coarse end of the spectrum is likely how they were able to make these mills fast to grind and easy to turn – by making the gear teeth more aggressive. If you like your spices on the coarse side, this is a set to keep in mind when it’s time to purchase. In addition to the set shown above, these are sold separately as well.
Now, since you have come to the conclusion that it is finally time to ditch those kitschy decorative salt and pepper shakers that your grandma bought you back in the 1970s, you know where to turn. Embrace the heightened flavors that are brought to meals simply by making the switch to a proper high-quality salt and pepper mill in the dining room, the kitchen, or at your restaurant if you are a professional cook or chef.
Once you have gotten accustomed to freshly ground salt and pepper in your kitchen, you will likely never be able to go back to those diner shakers. And, while pepper and salt mills cannot promise to completely change your life, they will certainly add a new element of taste to your cooking – impressing your friends, family, or customers all along the way!
Read more of Foodal’s spice grinder guides and reviews now!
First published February 22nd, 2015. Last updated February 21st, 2017.
Photo credits: Shutterstock.
About Julie Workman
As a freelance writer for over 15 years, Julie Workman has been published in various magazines, books, and online media. She holds a college degree in Home Economics which she uses every day in overseeing her household and making her home a happy place for her family.