One morning during prep at Les Ambassadeurs restaurant in Paris, my chef happened to pass by just as I was seasoning the foie gras custard. He stopped and held out his hand while staring me down. I relinquished the pepper mill. He wordlessly cranked the mill a few times over my cutting board to inspect the size of the grind—one of his surprise spot checks. Satisfied by its fineness, he handed the mill back and then stalked away. He believed that in his subtle dishes, ground pepper should add flavor without being seen or felt.
Even for dishes you’ll make at home, from vinaigrette to Mornay sauce for a fancy mac ‘n’ cheese, a fine grind can make the difference between delicateness and distraction. Coarsely crushed peppercorns might serve as a complementary coating to charred beef but would overwhelm a sweet sea scallop that needs only a bare dusting. Any pepper mill can give you a coarse grind—or, just to crush, you could use the bottom of a heavy pan only a good mill supplies a fine grind reliably without falling subject to grind creep. That is, it won’t create increasingly bigger chunks as you turn.
A good mill should also work harder than you do, so that you’re not turning furiously to produce only a light dusting. Filling it should be easy, not requiring the skills of a Lilliputian watchmaker.
We picked three pepper mills that are considered, in culinary circles, to be the best or most ingenious. To test them, we ground Indian black Malabar peppercorns finely. The first model, from a highly rated maker, has been winning raves among home chefs and the media, including a positive rating in Cooks Illustrated. The second is a standard in classic French kitchens. The last is a new model that has been winning fans for its innovative design.
With better pepper mills like these, getting a fine grind that stays that way until you adjust it isn’t an issue. All three I tested worked well in that regard. But other features, like durability, ergonomics, and ease of being filled, made each unique.
By Unicorn, $22
Unicorn makes a famous mill called the Magnum Plus, which looks like a black plastic chess-set queen, stands nine inches tall, and can take a whole cup of peppercorns. You grind with it by turning its smooth head. I prefer the smaller Keytop, which you operate by turning an oblong knob on top—it’s easier to use when your hands are greasy. At 6 inches in height, it’s also less obtrusive if you want to set it on the dinner table. The grind size adjusts with a screw on the bottom of the mill.
A black nylon holster is sold separately for restaurant-server use, but it’s fun to quick-draw a mill at your own table—I dare you to try doing it without whistling the theme from a A Fistful of Dollars.
To fill the Keytop, you simply turn the top half of the body, which reveals a big, accessible hole that can easily swallow whole peppercorns (people who own Unicorn mills love this). The grind held steadfastly fine with no grind-size creep.
While it’s not a good kitchen practice to leave a pepper mill near high heat, because it affects the quality of your peppercorns, you certainly wouldn’t want to do it with the Keytop—its plastic body might melt.
By Peugeot, $29.95
Peugeot mills are to French culture what classic Chevys are to Americana. Peugeot manufacturing goes back to 1810, and they’ve made everything from saws, corset boning, coffee mills, and hoop-skirt frames to cars and, yes, pepper mills.
Peugeot created their first pepper mill, made of porcelain, in 1874. The Hostellerie model was released in 1953, and its classic tapered beechwood body remains the standard in French restaurant kitchens today. The wood body withstands falls to the floor without breaking or malfunctioning, and vigils by hot stoves. It powered through peppercorns, never shifting grind size, until the finial on top that adjusts it was loosened.
A pet peeve I have with the Hostellerie is how tricky it is to fill. The tiny top finial must be removed to lift the cap. It’s imperative to stash the tiny screw top someplace safe; otherwise, it invariably gets knocked away, which will send you scrambling on your hands and knees. Also, you must pour the peppercorns around the center shaft and the spokes around it inside the body. If any are too big, they jam and need to be plucked out, which is not difficult but annoying to do.
By Trudeau, $29.99
Trudeau—manufacturer of housewares since 1889, including thermal carafes and fondue sets—released the first Graviti mill last year. It’s effortless—simply turn the mill upside down and it begins grinding, automatically, by battery power. A new Elite model offers a sleeker look with a clear spice chamber, unlike the original, which partially hid your peppercorns. You can see that you’re not grinding black when you want white. And because the ground pepper comes out from the top, the bottom of the mill leaves no powdery footprint on your counter. One slight drawback: The mill takes six AAA batteries, which makes it a little heavy.
The Elite Graviti ground finely with no creep. The adjuster is a plastic tab on top. The mill easily refills after the base and battery pack are removed with a simple twist. But the downside is that, whenever you turn the mill upside down, it starts grinding—including the times when you’re trying to remove the base to add peppercorns or put new batteries in. It’s also a little noisy, at about the level of an electric can opener.
All three mills produced a fine end product; it’s difficult to declare one a winner. The virtual indestructibility of the Peugeot Hostellerie makes it a good bet for serious chefs (or for ones with small children who will throw it on the floor). But its hard-to-fill chamber can be annoying. On the other hand, the Unicorn Keytop is easiest of all to fill, but less durable because of its plastic body. I have not tried throwing the Elite Graviti across the room, but I’ll bet that the battery-powered grinder would not survive such rough treatment. That said, you can’t do much better for ease of use and novelty. I have one on my dining room table right now. If you run out of things to talk about at a dinner party, just grind some pepper.