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Cheap Pepper Mills Buying Guide

The fundamental task of a pepper mill, cheap or otherwise, is to grind pepper and produce even, or consistent, particles. All pepper mills work basically in the same way: Two wheels turn against each other, grinding the pepper seeds in the process.

Some pricey units, like the Peugeot, first crush the pepper, then send it down a shaft, and finally grind it. Some cooks claim that the best pepper grinders have ceramic grinding mechanisms, and a few inexpensive pepper mills do, but most of the best pepper grinders feature a steel grinder that's perfectly adequate for the task at hand. The plastic mechanisms found in some low price pepper mills are not worth even the small amount of money you'd spend on them unless you want something that's essentially disposable. An important note: If you're considering grinding salt in a pepper mill, you must choose one with a ceramic grinder. Salt will corrode steel mechanisms and the metal will start to come out along with the salt.

For all their similarities, pepper mills vary in design. With a traditional pepper grinder, you turn the top and the pepper comes out the bottom, where the grinding wheels are located. Nowadays you'll find pepper mills with the reverse design; that is, when the pepper grinder stands at ease on a counter or table, the grinding wheels are on the top and you flip it over to grind and release the pepper. There are also pepper mills that you pump instead of turn, and still others: electric pepper grinders that run on batteries and require little, if any, manual effort. Each design has its partisans, primarily based on perceived ease of use.

When searching for the best pepper grinder, other factors also matter. For example, it's certainly convenient to be able to adjust the texture of the grind, and the reviews that we read indicate consumers welcome the opportunity. But experts at Cooks Illustrated assert that it's more important to have a consistent fine grind than an infinite number of grind options. Then, too, you may prefer a pepper mill that doesn't leave pepper residue all over your counter and/or one that's easy to refill and easy to hold, particularly if your hands are greasy or wet.

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The cheap pepper mill market is dominated by OXO, William Bound, Vic Firth, Olde Thompson, and Trudeau. All of these manufacturers offer a selection of different types of pepper mills at a variety of price points.

In the course of our research into the best and good cheap pepper mills, we looked at all types of pepper grinders. The hands-down winner for best budget pepper mill is the OXO Good Grips Pepper Grinder 1140700 (starting at $15), which sports an acrylic body, ceramic grinder, and pour-from-the-top design. We chose two good cheap pepper mills -- the William Bounds Key Mill WB-1 Pepper Mill 901 (starting at $20), for its crush rather than grind mechanism and convenient acrylic body, and the Vic Firth Pump & Grind Stainless Steel Pepper Mill STS06PM01 (starting at $13) for a pump design that lets you grind pepper one-handed with a press of your thumb. Two models that didn't make our list include the Chef'n Pepper Ball (starting at $14), which users say is prone to breaking, and the electric Trudeau Graviti 0716907 (starting at $17), which gets dinged by users for malfunctions and its voracious appetite for batteries.

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