Is freshly-ground black pepper really best? Should you ditch the pre-ground stuff? Let's discuss!
The Case for Freshly Ground Pepper
The “pepperiness” of pepper comes from the compound piperine, which is a stimulant. Sure, pepper packs heat, but when it’s freshly ground, it’s also fruity and bright, and its interplay with different foods and textures is varied and nuanced.
Besides, grinding fresh pepper is satisfying. You can adjust the coarseness so it’s chunky and irregular or consistent and fine. You see those peppery specks trickling out of the grinder onto your food. Best of all, you can smell it. Everything about freshly ground pepper pops.
The Case Against Pre-Ground Pepper
If you think you don’t like black pepper, then what you truly dislike might be the dusty vibe of months-old, pre-ground pepper. Tinned pre-ground pepper is like a dub of a dub of a dub of a cassette tape—a vague echo of its original glory.
Grind fresh peppercorns, and the flavor will be like listening to your favorite band from 1992 digitally remastered and on a very nice stereo. In other words, wow.
The Best Way to Grind Fresh Pepper
You can enjoy freshly ground pepper without buying a fancy pepper mill. To be honest, those disposable pepper grinders you can buy pre-filled in the spice aisle do an acceptable job. If you’d like to dip a toe in grinding pepper fresh, try one of those.
Grinding more than a teaspoon of pepper with a hand-cranked mill gets tiresome quickly. If a recipe calls for a lot of ground pepper, you can grind a small batch quickly in an electric spice mill or inexpensive blade coffee grinder. (Run some dry rice or breadcrumbs through afterwards to clean out any residue.)
Some cooks grind a few tablespoons of pepper in an electric mill every week, so they can have it ready to go in a small dish by the stove. If you have joint pain or simply don’t care to grind pepper very often, consider doing that.
How to Make Chunky, Cracked Peppercorns
For a pepper-crusted steak, big shards of peppercorns are what you want. If your grinder isn’t giving you that consistency, spread peppercorns on a large cutting board. Lay a sturdy skillet over them, pressing and rocking the outer edge until they crack into pieces. Or try a rolling pin.
Shopping for Pepper Mills
The best way to buy a pepper mill is to test-drive a bunch of them. A good cookware store should have plenty of mills loaded with peppercorns for you to grind.
The mill that feels right to one person won’t to another. Just mess around with different ones and think about what fits in your hand, is easy to adjust for a coarse or fine grind, and cranks in a manner that feels natural. Keep the receipt, and make sure they have a good return policy.
In my experience, a high price does not necessarily translate to great performance. Look for a metal grinding mechanism (as opposed to ceramic). Mills with an acrylic or glass body allow light to penetrate the peppercorns, which can dull their flavor, but you can see at a glance if you need a refill.
If you plan on shopping online, Fletchers’ Mill and Cole & Mason both have good reputations.
Once you start using freshly ground pepper, you’ll realize the tiny bit of extra work and time is worth it. To learn more about the nuances of pepper in all of its wonders check out the Simply Recipes Guide to Pepper.