Recently I was studying shelves of peppermills at a kitchenware shop. There were dozens of them in every shape, color, size—and price point.
A pudgy, red-faced man was standing next to me, breathing wine fumes. “I hate this,” he grumbled. “I keep buying the damn things and they keep breaking. Nothing lasts more than six months.”
Well, sir, I feel your pain.
For weeks I’ve been testing pepper mills in the $60 to $100 range. Right now there are piles of ground pepper–black, white and green–all over the kitchen counter. The air smells amazing: bright, pungent, nostril-clearing. Slowly I’m getting closer to answering a few questions that have been on my mind, to wit:
What qualities would the best pepper mill have? Is there one that will satisfy every need? And has my passion for our well-used Atlas blinded me to other possibilities?
Answering the first question is a snap: The key qualities are beauty, ease of use, a satisfying grind, and durability. So the best pepper mill…
… would be stylish, perhaps even beautiful. It should also feel good in the hand.
Still form shouldn’t trump function. There are always outliers like Michael Hoffman who in 27 years has collected 600 pepper grinders, including one that looks like an Easter Island sculpture and another that resembles a Chanel perfume bottle. As his wife told The New York Times, it’s “more about buying an art piece than a functioning piece.” (NYT, page D4, February 23, 2012)
For the rest of us, the pepper grinder needs to do its job, and do it well. So the best pepper mill should also be…
…easy to operate. Easy to fill with an ample supply of peppercorns. And easy to adjust, with a mechanism that can produce ground pepper that ranges from fine to coarse.
…capable of producing a satisfying grind. Fine, chunky or in-between, you should be happy with the consistency of the ground pepper that comes out of the mill. Uniformity of grind isn’t necessarily desirable—unless you like it that way.
….durable. Sturdy enough to stand up to heavy use. Our pepper mill gets a workout at breakfast, lunch and dinner and also whenever I’m developing a recipe. In the best of all possible worlds, my children would inherit the mill and fight tooth and nail over who was going to get it. (No, scratch that. I’ll put two mills in the will, one for each.)
And, yet, after all this time the perfect mill remains elusive. Here are the results of my testing (and a surprise or two). Consider it a work in progress…
For years, the number one pepper mill in the SpiceLines kitchen has been the Atlas 404, made in Crete and modeled after a portable coffee grinder which Greek soldiers carried in the field. No surprises here: It’s still my favorite.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but to me, this handsome copper tower topped with a sturdy brass handle more than meets the good looks standard. Bands of incised grape clusters encircle the body of the mill, and after a decade the copper still gleams brightly (I’ve never had to polish it). It looks as good at the table as it does in the kitchen. It’s the first and usually only mill I reach for everyday.
The Atlas 404 holds ½-cup of Penzey’s Whole Special Extra Bold Indian Black Peppercorns, enough to get us through the week. To fill it, you unscrew the handle, remove the cap and pour the peppercorns into the center of the mill. A funnel helps, since peppercorns tend to bounce off the central shaft. It takes a few minutes to load up so I’d give it a “B” for ease of filling.
Inside the Atlas, a heavy steel mechanism with hand-cut burrs pulverizes the peppercorns when you turn the crank handle. Turning the handle clockwise grinds pepper more finely; go in the reverse direction for a coarser grind.Though a review in The Wall Street Journal said the grind is not adjustable, there is in fact a screw on the bottom of the mill that can be loosened or tightened to change the size of the grind.
A little heft is needed to turn the handle, but I like the fact that I can actually feel the steel burrs cutting into the peppercorns. This is a heavy mill, weighing over one pound, so flex your muscles.
All said, the Atlas is an excellent mill—but not if you prefer your pepper ground very fine or in big chunks. Its range is from medium-fine to medium-coarse—if you’re happy with this somewhat limited choice (and I am), this is the one to buy. I’ve used mine almost everyday, several times a day, for 10 years and it’s still cranking along.
If I didn’t have an Atlas, I’d probably have a set of sturdy Perfex pepper mills for everyday use. As it is, I keep this 4-inch model, which has been made by a family in St. Etienne France for over half a century, filled with white peppercorns, knowing that I can go from a fine to very coarse grind simply by turning the screw on the underside of the mill.
The Perfex has a cast aluminum body with a utilitarian appearance. It would look fine in almost any kitchen and would also work on the table in a minimalist modern setting, though you might not want to mix it with your grandmother’s Limoges.
To fill the Perfex, simply open the chute and pour in ¼-cup peppercorns, using a teaspoon to keep them from spilling out the sides.
To adjust the grind, flip the mill upside down and turn the nut on the bottom, clockwise for fine, counterclockwise for coarse. As you turn the nut, you can actually see the round plate to which it is attached rise or fall, increasing or decreasing the space between the plate and the bottom of the mill and thereby the size of the grind.
The consistency of the grind ranges from relatively fine to very coarse.Turn the nut all the way counter clockwise and the peppercorns will be cut in quarters or halves, a very coarse grind indeed. You cannot get an even grind at any setting however—there will be always be a mix of finer and coarser pepper no matter the position of the nut.
I’ve had my Perfex for 8 or 9 years and, though I don’t use it every day, it continues to perform well. The body is very sturdy and there are few moving parts to break down. I have read complaints that over time, the grind tends to “wander” on some Perfex mills, but this is not a problem I’ve had.
I’ve also read postings from people who’ve bought cheap Perfex mills on Ebay only to find that they have purchased a non-working fake. It seems a bit strange that anyone would go to the trouble of knocking off a pepper mill, but if you’re looking at one that’s listed for a lot less than the retail price, beware.
Over the years I’ve bought—and discarded—several inexpensive Peugeot pepper mills. I really wanted to like them but each was disappointing. Variously they were hard to fill or hard to crank and failed to produce a satisfactory grind. The enamel on one mill even cracked and began to peel.
But the recent WSJ review called the $80 Chateauneuf model “the Cadillac” of pepper mills, so I decided to step up to the plate.
The Chateauneuf is a statuesque 9-1/2-inch tall mill. Its curvaceous ebonized exterior has stainless bands at the top and bottom, giving a sleek, modern spin to what is essentially an old-fashioned shape. It would fit well in any kitchen–I see it at a marble-topped table in a chateau cuisine– and in all but the most formal dining rooms.
To fill the mill, unscrew the stainless ball at the top and remove the rounded piece below it. This mill will hold about ¼ cup of smaller Indian Malabar or Malaysian Lampong peppercorns—the openings are too narrow to accommodate the larger Tellicherry variety. It was the hardest to fill as peppercorns kept bouncing off a plastic piece through which they must pass; try using a funnel with a narrow tip. Ease of filling: C-
On the other hand, it is incredibly easy to adjust the Chateauneuf’s grind. Simply turn the stainless band at the bottom of the mill to one of the marked settings—they range from l (finest) to llllll (coarsest)—and line it up with the vertical white line.
Unfortunately, like its bretheren, this mill doesn’t always work. Sometimes when I twist the top to grind the peppercorns, nothing happens. Then I shake the mill to make sure the peppercorns are touching the grinding mechanism and eventually it produces a shower of ground pepper. A few grinds later, it may stop again. These hiccups are enough to make me think twice about giving the Chateaneuf pride of place in my kitchen.
I also did not experience the WSJ’s ephiphany: “You’ve never seen such precise, uniform flakes.” Uniformity doesn’t matter much to me, but I found that the mill produced a decidedly mixed grind at most settings. The finest grind is actually more like medium-fine, while the coarsest grind blends chunky bits with pepper powder.
Peugeot Chateauneuf, $80, Williams Sonoma.
When I was in Paris, I couldn’t resist buying Olivier Roellinger’s stylish beechwood pepper grinder. The 5-inch chocolate brown mill features stainless crank and drawer handles modeled after boat winches—the Brittany born chef and spice maven is also an avid sailor—and overall, this is a sleek take on an old-fashioned box-shaped pepper grinder. The price? 60 euros.
And the innards? Made by Peugeot. But this one is different. First, it is very easy to fill. Simply slide open the rounded stainless door on top of the mill and pour the peppercorns though the wide mouth. The mill only holds 1/8 cup, giving it the smallest capacity of any that I tested.
The grind is adjustable through a somewhat complicated mechanism. To adjust, lift the stiff black “spring tab” behind the crank handle and turn the notched “thumb wheel” to the desired position so the tab hooks into the notch. Unfortunately, this has to be done by trial and error since the five positions are unmarked and there’s no way to tell what sort of grind will be produced until you actually test it.
(Note: These instructions come from See Smell Taste, a spice website which carries the Roellinger Peugeot—a good thing, since the booklet that came with my mill is for another type of grinder altogether and there is no information on Epices Roellinger.)
To continue: Inside the mill there is a “helix shaped…mechanism…constructed specifically to grind whole peppercorns. “ Depending on where you’ve set the notch, a “double row of case-hardened-steel grinding teeth guides and holds peppercorns” for the desired grind. A small drawer at the base of the mill catches the pepper after it is ground; you can also remove the drawer to grind pepper directly over your food.
When I put the thumb wheel through its paces, I was impressed with the uniformity of the grind in each position. The crank handle turns smoothly, but the mill’s range is limited, from very fine to light medium. This makes the Roellinger an excellent mill when evenly ground peppercorns are needed, especially for blends–but it would not be an all-purpose mill for anyone who also enjoys coarsely ground pepper.
At $US100, it’s fair to ask if the mill delivers enough.
One thing that’s interesting about the Roellinger Peugeot is that it can be used to grind small quantities of “faux” peppercorns such as grains of paradise, actually a pungent cardamom relative, and tongue-numbing Sichuan peppercorns, actually ash fruit, to a consistency which would work well in spice blends or rubs.
However long pepper could not be ground without first almost pulverizing it in a mortar and pestle. Long pepper has a slightly resinous interior which might gum up the works, so a mortar and pestle or electric grinder would be the better way to go.
Roellinger Peugeot Peppermill, $100, See, Smell Taste.
Now, what if you don’t have $60-$100 to blow on a peppermill? Is there hope? Coming in April: Testing Peppermills Under $50.