Ah the aroma and flavor of freshly ground pepper. To lots of home cooks, a dish simply is not finished until a dash (or more) of black pepper has been added. Pepper is one of the top-selling spices in the country and while many buy it pre-ground and simply shake it from its container, other prefer to buy whole peppercorns, grinding the spice at home for a fresher, more robust flavor. As long as the peppercorn has existed, there has also existed a need to need to grind it from its small berry-like consistency to even smaller flakes. For centuries, pepper and other spices were ground with a mortar and pestle – and in some kitchens, this method is still preferred today – but by about the 14th century, spice mills began appearing in European kitchens allowing cooks to grind peppercorns into the smaller flakes that allow the spice to better blend with other flavors in a dish.
Today’s modern pepper grinders have much in common with their ancient counterparts. Most contain a hollow section for storing peppercorns along with a series of blades attached to a rotating handle that when turned rotates one grinding mechanism against another. When the berries are forced between the grinders, they are crushed into smaller flakes then dispensed. Although the mechanism is a simple one, there is much to consider when buying a pepper grinder.
Battery-operated or manual: When shopping for a new pepper grinder, the consumer must first answer one basic question: Do I want to turn a rotating handle as many as two to five times every time I want freshly ground pepper, or do I want fresh pepper dispensed with the touch of a button? Choosing between a manual or electric pepper grinder can be a difficult choice. The electric ones are easy to use and are great for people who might have arthritis or those who simply like push-button convenience. Some have lights which makes the devices easy to use when grilling at night or dining by candlelight. But the manual versions are also easy to use and the mechanisms are often not difficult to turn. Whether choosing battery-operated or manual, a good pepper grinder should have a smooth-turning grinding mechanism preferably made of stainless steel. Pepper grinders are available to suit just about every style and taste. Some are hand-crafted from wood while others are made of acrylic, plastic, wood or stainless steel. While some grind peppercorns into just one size of flake, others allow the user to select the size of the flakes for course, medium or finely ground pepper.
Disposable grinders: These handy grinders are sold with the peppercorns (or other spices) already in the device and. As they are inexpensive, easy to use and convenient they are also a popular choice. They work like their non-disposable counterparts, but these grinders are designed to be tossed in the trash when the spice has been used – adding unnecessary waste to landfills. Attempts to reopen the mechanism and replace it with additional spices when the mixture is gone is difficult, and often not worth the trouble. But disposable grinders come in handy in a pinch and are great for camping, picniking and other outings where you might not want to take your more expensive pepper grinder along.
Price: Prices vary dramatically. Disposable pepper grinders tend to sell for about $3 while a basic manual refillable grinder can be found for about $10. Upscale models however can run as high as $200 for a set of electric stainless steel salt and pepper grinders sold in some specialty kitchen stores.