After more than 60 hours of research over the past three years and testing 18 different pepper mills, we’re confident that the Peugeot Paris U’Select is the best for most people. Since its introduction in 1874, the Peugeot pepper mill has been beloved by professional cooks and design enthusiasts alike for its inimitably sharp case-hardened steel grind mechanism and sleek looks. The grind mechanism produces even grinds at each preset coarseness setting (unlike much of the competition) and comes with a lifetime warranty. The Peugeot is more expensive than other grinders, but you’ll probably never need to buy another grinder; a great pepper mill is a buy-it-for-life kind of item.
Jennifer Fields, who wrote our original guide, earned a Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Arts Diploma from Western Culinary Institute in Portland, OR and has spent years using pepper mills. Ganda Suthivarakom, who updated our last guide, is the executive editor of The Sweethome and has been published in Saveur, Every Day with Rachael Ray, and New York (among others). Michael Sullivan, who contributed to our 2016 update, has reviewed can openers and cookbook stands as well as other kitchen gadgets for The Sweethome. He’s spent dozens of hours researching, testing, and grinding pepper mills for this guide.
To find out what we should be looking for in a great pepper mill, we talked to experts including James-Beard-award-winning cookbook author Diane Morgan; James-Beard-award-winning chef Jennifer Jasinski; Culinary Director for Sur La Table Stephi Coyle; spice merchant and co-owner of The Spice House Patty Erd; and Pepper: The spice that changed the world author Christine McFadden. To figure out the best models to test, we also looked to a number of editorial reviews from Cook’s Illustrated (subscription required), The Wall Street Journal, and Consumer Search.
If you’re used to using pre-ground pepper, you’ll be surprised at what a difference freshly ground pepper can make—as Harold McGee writes in On Food and Cooking, grinding the spice “frees their aromatics to evaporate, so the most and freshest flavor comes from whole peppercorns ground directly into the preparation.”
Those prepackaged pepper grinders from the supermarket generally have inferior grind mechanisms made of acrylic, which is not as strong or sharp as the steel and ceramic used in higher-quality pepper mills. They’re also marked up, often charging $10 for $5 worth of pepper. Upgrading to a standalone mill allows you to choose what pepper to put into your food, perhaps using a mix of colored peppercorns or only white for light sauces.
Restaurants and cooking schools often rely on electric spice grinders to prep large volumes of ground pepper or other spices before a shift. However, a manual pepper mill is best for the smaller amounts used in home kitchens.
If you have a cheap pepper grinder that gets easily clogged, grinds inconsistently, loosens grind settings too easily, or sprays pepper everywhere, it’s probably time to upgrade. A great pepper mill will outlive you.
Pepper mills are pretty simple. Gravity feeds the peppercorns into a grind mechanism, and cranking the grinder cracks and crushes the spice into a fine dust, releasing aromatic oils that enhance food. Their design hasn’t changed much since they were invented by Peugeot (the same company that later made cars) in the mid-1800s.
Pepper author Christine McFadden told us, “The best [grinders] have a mechanism made from high-carbon steel or ceramic.” Ceramic is a very hard material and can be used with salt; steel, especially carbon or case-hardened steel, is very sharp but can’t be used with salt. Avoid mechanisms made with acrylic, as they are less strong and may flake off into food.
Chef Jennifer Jasinski told us the most important thing is to find one that is “comfortable in your hands and grinds the pepper evenly.”
Cookbook author Diane Morgan said it’s good to invest up front. “It’s a tool that can last for many, many years, so it’s a place where I just wouldn’t go cheap.” Expect to pay around $40 or more for a great model, but know that it should provide a lifetime’s worth of use.
Many traditional pepper mills rely on a small screw at the top to adjust pepper grind fineness. The screw tightens or loosens the spring that brings the conical burr closer to the outer ring of teeth. Many mills have a hard time keeping a consistent fine grind because the movement required to turn the top knob loosens the screw. It can also be hard to gauge how much you have to turn the screw in order to get the exact size grind you want. When the adjusting nut is on the bottom of the grinder, near where your pepper comes out, you don’t want to touch it with dirty or oily hands.
Newer designs take the guesswork out by including a band on the body with markings denoting five or six levels of fineness. In our testing, we found that models with this feature worked well, moving easily and consistently between grind levels without the risk of contaminating pepper with greasy fingers.
Refilling can be a pain, and the models we tested varied in width and ease. Some required dismantling the body and removing the head to fill the shaft; some had pop-out chutes that could be refilled from the side without having to unscrew the top; some could be filled from the bottom under a screwed-on lid. The better models can hold at least three tablespoons of peppercorns. We narrowed down the list to those that were between five and 10 inches in height, since that’s what will fit in a cabinet; much larger and your peppercorns will just go stale as they wait to be ground. We also found in testing that a wider grinding mechanism diameter doesn’t necessarily mean faster output.
Mills are available in a number of styles, from the knob twist to cranks to ratchets. We tried a few of each and gravitated towards the traditional twist-top style, which was easy on the hands and aesthetically pleasing. For our new round of testing, we only looked at knob twist and electric models due to their stability and ease of use.
See-through bodies made of acrylic or glass can be convenient for knowing when you’re running low on peppercorns. However, you trade off convenience for spice deterioration. In On Food and Cooking, Harold McGee writes, “Even whole peppercorns lose much of their aroma after a month in a grinder…Pepper is best stored tightly sealed in the cold and dark. If exposed to light during storage, it loses its pungency because the light energy rearranges piperine to form a nearly tasteless molecule (isochavicine).”
Most pepper mills offer very long or lifetime warranties on the grinding mechanism; however, longevity and breakage don’t seem to be big issues with this particular tool.
Pepper grinders can cost anywhere between $8 and $200, but we we eliminated models over $60 because they didn’t seem to offer anything better than models that cost considerably less.
For our original guide and our 2014 update, we tested 12 manual models and four electric models. For this update, we tested four manual pepper mills: the Zassenhaus Stained Beech Pepper Mill 7.1”, the Cole & Mason Capstan Precision Wooden Pepper Mill, the Trudeau Seville Pepper Mill, 6-inch, and the OXO Good Grips Lily Pepper Mill. We also tested two electric pepper mills, the Eukein Automatic Electric Salt or Pepper Grinder Mill and the Eparé Battery Operated Pepper Mill. We pitted these against our previous picks: The Peugeot U’Select Pepper Mill, the Fletchers’ Mill Border Grill Pepper Mill, the OXO Good Grips Pepper Grinder, and the Trudeau Graviti Plus.
To test the pepper mills, we adjusted coarseness settings to various positions to see how consistently and accurately they could grind. We took note of the effort required to crank out large amounts of pepper (one teaspoon) from each grinder and whether the grind was concentrated or sprayed. We also checked to see the amount of peppercorns each model could hold. Using wet and oily hands, we gauged how difficult it would be to use the grinder in messy cooking situations. For electric models, we took note of how noisy the motors were while grinding. Since pepper mills are unique in that they get equal play in the kitchen and on the table, we also took aesthetics into account. Ideally, we wanted pepper mills that were nice enough to place on the table for a dinner party without being an eyesore.
The Peugeot Paris U’Select Pepper Mill is an updated version of the French pepper mill that started it all. A case-hardened steel mechanism produces a consistent grind at every level and, in testing, produced pepper faster than most of the competition. Instead of fiddling with a hard-to-predict screw at the top, you can twist a discreet dial on the bottom of the body to lock in one of six precise fineness settings. The Peugeot’s sleek and ergonomic shape is easy to grab by the stove, but it’s still beautiful enough to present at the table. Other models we tested, which had plastic parts, didn’t look so great. The Peugeot is also available in a number of sizes.
In our tests this year, the Peugeot took an average 40 half-turns to produce about one teaspoon of finely-ground pepper, making it one of the fastest models we tested. The grinding mechanism crushes peppercorns in two steps: it first cracks and then grinds to ensure that the maximum flavor and aroma are released. The grind is very consistent, with almost no peppercorn chunks in the finer settings and only a little dust in the coarser settings. The setting progressions are more subtle than other models, but the dial locks them in place so no amount of knob twisting will change the setting.
The knob at the top is easy to twist, and the waist in the hourglass shape is comfortable for the anchoring hand to hold. Since it turns smoothly, the Peugeot doesn’t wobble in your hands while grinding and makes it easy to aim where the pepper will fall. The crank-style pepper mills we tested last year, such as the OXO Good Grips Pepper Mill, required too much back-and-forth motion and caused pepper to spray all over the place.
The burr itself is made of steel that is case-hardened, which means that it’s tempered and treated with a high-carbon material to make it extra hard and sharp. The mechanism comes with a lifetime warranty, but the body of the mill comes with a two-year warranty; it’s the body that will wear out first. Sweethome writer and test kitchen manager Lesley Stockton has owned an earlier version of the Peugeot for seven or eight years. It’s sustained some damage (after repeatedly being batted off the table by her cat) but still works very well.
It’s beloved by more experts than we can name here. In this video, Martha Stewart says the Peugeot is “still the only pepper mill I use; it’s amazing.” Chef Michael Symon calls it “the BMW of grinders.” In the Frankies Spuntino Kitchen Companion & Cooking Manual, Frank Castronovo and Frank Falcinelli say, “Peugeot grinders finely crush the peppercorns rather than mash them like other cheaper mills made with plastic gears will do.” Remodelista named the Peugeot Pepper Mill one of their “100 Most Beautiful, Useful Household Objects,” and say, “Its strong-jawed interior was the inspiration for the Peugeot lion.” Food historian Bee Wilson says, “No mill, in my experience, produces a more consistent grind. They are beautiful, too, like noble wooden chess pieces.”
Real Simple says specifically of the Peugeot U’Select: “All the mills Real Simple staffers tried were inconsistent or squeaky—except for this champ.”
If you like your pepper super chunky, crack-between-your-teeth coarse, this is not the right model for you. The Peugeot’s coarsest setting was equal to about a medium coarseness on other models. But we think the settings are versatile enough for most cooks and most dishes.
Like many of the pepper mills we tested, the opening for filling the grinder isn’t particularly wide. And if that easy-to-lose gold top nut falls and rolls under your stove, you’ll probably be very unhappy.
Some of the Peugeot buyers on Amazon complain that larger peppercorns can jam the mill. However, we tested store-bought black peppercorns as well as a mix of large, multi-colored peppercorns and neither gave us any trouble.
One of our readers who owns the Peugeot commented that the wooden dial used to adjust the grind setting cracked on their model. While we’ve never experienced this ourselves after years of use, we’ll continue to test longterm to see if any problems arise. In addition, Peugeot is soon to release a new stainless steel version, which may be a solution to any cracked grind collar problems.
The American-made Fletchers’ Mill grinders use a stainless steel mechanism which, like the Peugeot, cracks pepper in two steps to release maximum aromatics. The sustainable wood body comes in various colors, including a few that show off its beautiful cherry wood grain. It’s comfortable to hold and produces a great amount of pepper with little effort. Due to its elongated turning knob, our testers found it was the easiest pepper mill to operate with greasy hands.
Fletchers’ Mill has taken over the beloved Vic Firth pepper mill line. In early 2013, Vic Firth sold the rights to their Gourmet line (the food tools, not the drumsticks) to family-owned Fletchers’ Mill, another Maine-based woodworking facility.
We wanted to see if the Fletchers’ Mill products would work as well as the Vic Firth mills did, and we can confirm that they’re still great. We’re not alone in that assessment as it was also a favorite in The Wall Street Journal. Patty Erd said, “Of all the mills our spice company has carried over the 55 plus years we have been in business, the Vic Firth company, which has now been bought by Fletchers’ Mills, has been the company where we have experienced the least amount of returns. That speaks volumes to us.”
However, our testers were surprised to find that the Trudeau’s grinding capabilities performed almost as well as mills twice the price. Like the Peugeot, the Trudeau has a rounded knob for easy turning. While it’s the shortest pepper mill we tested, it’s still a comfortable height and weight and remains stable on the table. Unlike some models we tested, the Trudeau leaves very little pepper dust on the counter.
It feels secure while turning and produces a teaspoon of finely ground pepper in about 50 half-turns (again, around 40 half-turns for the Peugeot). While we prefer a taller size, it still looks handsome on the table. It also comes with a lifetime guarantee.
Overall, it’s a durable, cheap pick with a space-saving size ideal for people with smaller kitchens. The Trudeau is also available in 8-, 10-, and 12-inch sizes, but they’re more expensive. If you prefer a taller pepper mill, we still think the Peugeot is best.
Our testers and experts aren’t fans of electric pepper mills. They’re loud, they’re slow, they’re top-heavy, and the internal parts are often made with cheap plastic that can break easily. Nearly every electric model we found comes with a built-in tiny light bulb, ostensibly so you can see how much pepper you’ve put in your food. It’s gimmicky, and it doesn’t help as much as turning on an overhead light would. The Eparé’s LED light automatically illuminates while grinding, and while our testers found it unnecessary, it was the brightest of those we tested. If the light burns out, a customer service representative at Eparé said they’ll replace it.
Like all electric pepper mills, it’s agonizingly slow— it took almost two minutes to grind one teaspoon of finely-ground pepper. However, the Eparé was the only electric model we tested capable of a consistent fine grind. This model also has the quietest mechanical winding noise while grinding. If you have hand mobility issues or chronic hand pain, electric models are better suited for light seasoning. While most electric models grind faster on coarser settings, turning out a lot of pepper still requires you to firmly press and hold a button for a long time, which may be cumbersome. You might be better off purchasing pre-ground pepper for recipes that call for larger quantities.
We found the simple stainless steel cover to be attractive enough for table use but a bit slippery when working with messy hands in the kitchen. The slim, long body would be easy for small hands to hold on to, though like all models we tested, it’s slightly top heavy. The Eparé also comes with a cap to prevent pepper dust from dirtying your kitchen counter.
This Eparé isn’t as easy to fill as most manual pepper mills: you have to twist apart the base from the top stainless steel cover and then pull apart the base from the battery pack to access the refill opening. We recommend reviewing the instruction manual prior to filling. Unlike most electric models, the Eparé is covered with a limited lifetime warranty and a 60-day money back guarantee.
Don’t grind salt or other spices in your pepper mill. Salt corrodes untreated metal. There are special mills for salt which often use ceramic or treated stainless steel. (Also, keep in mind that you probably don’t need a grinder for salt. Pepper benefits from being crushed in order to release aromatics trapped inside, but salt tastes the same whether factory-crushed or mill-ground.) Other spices and herbs are better suited to different-shaped burrs; you have a better chance of keeping your mill clog-free if you stick to pepper.
If using red, pink, or green peppercorns, Peugeot suggests mixing them with black peppercorns in order to keep the mill running well. Colored peppercorns can gum up the grinder because they have been treated and may have higher moisture content than black peppercorns. This seems like sound advice for all pepper mills.
If you’re having a hard time turning the knob on your grinder, loosen the screw at the top of the grinder (if there is one) and gradually re-tighten it as you grind the peppercorns out—that should help any peppercorns stuck in the mechanism to pass through.
In general, for external cleaning, most pepper mills only require a damp cloth to wipe the outside clean. With a few of the models we tested, we added a little natural all-purpose cleaner or a tiny bit of dish soap when we felt we needed an extra boost to get the oily residue off. It’s especially best to check the manufacturer’s instructions for cleaning the inside of a mill. Never put them in the dishwasher.
If you’re having trouble getting peppercorns into your mill, use a piece of folded parchment paper as a funnel. You can easily tuck the piece of parchment away in a cupboard so it’s always on hand for refilling. Parchment makes it a cinch to direct squirrely peppercorns into any pepper mill neatly.
Peugeot is soon to release a new stainless steel version of our current top pick, the Paris U’Select Pepper Mill. We’re eager to test it to see how its durability compares as soon as it becomes available.
The OXO Good Grips Pepper Mill has five grinding positions, but regardless of the setting, it grinds about the same coarseness. During our tests, some pepper dust got caught in the threading of the opening and jammed it shut (the only way to open it was with a pair of needle-nose pliers).
Our testers didn’t love the plastic twisting knob on the new OXO Lily Peppermill because it felt cheap and not very durable. This model ground pepper very quickly, but the results were too coarse; the mill wasn’t capable of producing finely ground pepper.
We had high hopes for the Cole & Mason Pepper Mill, but it lacks a plastic guard that keeps the center spindle in place. When filled, the peppercorns pushed the spindle out of position and made it impossible to attach the top of the pepper mill.
We had a difficult time adjusting the grind settings on the Zassenhaus Dark Stained Beech Pepper Mill. The plastic twist knob used to adjust the grind settings easily clogged with pepper dust and made grinding inconsistent.
The Cole & Mason Derwent Precision was the winner in Cook’s Illustrated’s pepper mill test. Our main complaint about this model was that the grind output wasn’t as consistent as we expected and its output was a little slower than that of our main picks.
The IKEA Ihärdig struggles to transition from coarse back to fine and the grind isn’t very even. Also, the bottle is glass and doesn’t come with a warranty.
Though the Unicorn Magnum Plus has gotten a lot of positive press from many trusted editorial sources, we found metal shavings in the ground pepper after grinding. These shards were probably left over from the manufacturing process, but regardless, we didn’t love the Magnum Plus’s performance.
The easy-to-fill, easy-to-use OXO Good Grips Lua Pepper Mill grinds from the top and fills from the bottom, leaving no circles of dust on the counter. However, it was one of the slowest manual pepper grinders we tested.
The Olde Thompson pepper mill has a classic look at a great price, but loosening the nut at the top for coarser grinds made it feel like the top would fall off of the body. It was also a challenge to use with slippery hands due to its flatter top knob.
The OXO Good Grips Pepper Mill is a top-selling pepper mill on Amazon, but its thin plastic housing feels cheap. We couldn’t even turn the top handle with greasy hands, and the crank action means it tends to spray pepper over a wide area.
The Atlas Brass Pepper Mill was the other model that had metal shavings come out of the initial grind, which we chalk up to getting another manufacturer lemon. Shards aside, its refill system is a bit fussy.
The Chef Specialties 10” Imperial Walnut Pepper Mill looks a lot like the Peugeot, but it’s not in the same league. It uses a stainless steel grind mechanism and its grinds were inconsistent across all levels.
The Kuhn Rikon Ratchet Grinder grinds peppercorns loudly. At the coarsest setting, its output was still quite fine.
The Perfex Pepper Mill, manufactured by a French family-owned company, uses a carbon steel grind mechanism and is praised by some of our experts. However, its price is too much to pay for a 4½-inch mill that lacks grind settings and has a pretty small peppercorn capacity.
The William Bounds Key Mill is quite small at four inches and comes with only three coarseness settings.
The Zassenhaus Dark Stained Beech Pepper Mill has garnered good reviews on Amazon, however we’ve found in previous tests that hand crank models tend to spray pepper everywhere, so we were able to rule it out.
The William Bounds Twist Pepper Mill is only four inches tall, so it’s a little small for most people. It can’t hold that many peppercorns and would require refilling too frequently.
The PepperMate Traditional Pepper Mill 723 has a ceramic grinder but the body of the mill is made of plastic and looks cheap. We didn’t feel it was a nice enough for table use.
We were very disappointed with our previous top pick for electric, the Trudeau Graviti Plus. It has five grinding positions, but each produced coarsely ground pepper. This mill is not capable of producing a fine grind.
The Eukein Automatic Electric Pepper Grinder looks similar to the Eparé, but doesn’t compare in performance. This was also the loudest model we tested and it had a very weak light.
The Battery Powered Brushed Stainless Steel Salt, Pepper, or Spice Mill looks nearly identical to our pick for electric, the Eparé. However, this model has very few reviews and isn’t covered by a lifetime warranty.
The Cuisinart SP-2 Stainless Steel Rechargeable Pepper Mill is our former favorite electric mill. It didn’t grind as consistently as our new pick for electric.
The Russell Hobbs Battery Powered Pepper Grinder produces more of a medium grind no matter what level it’s set to.
The iTouchless Automatic Stainless Steel Pepper Grinder ground pepper inconsistently at nearly every setting.
The Adhoc 78EP60 9″ Electric Pepper Mill – Woodmatic is probably the best looking electric model we found. The downside is that it is far too expensive compared to similar models with better features.
Unfortunately, the handsome Cole & Mason Cheltenaham Electronic Pepper Mill has a very low rating on Amazon with few customer reviews.
The Ozeri Graviti Pro Electric Pepper Mill and Grinder grinds automatically when inverted, a feature we disliked with the Trudeau Graviti.
(Photos by Michael Hession.)
Originally published: April 6, 2016