When did grinding your own pepper become so common? (And what's the deal with grinding your own salt?)

I remember growing up as a kid, we always had pre-ground pepper in regular pepper shakers. I understand from reading an opinion article that pre-ground pepper goes stale and dusty faster, and that freshly ground pepper just tastes better. But about when did we get to a point where peppercorns are available in a little plastic disposable pepper grinder in every supermarket spice aisle?

And the last time I went to buy spices, I saw a similar grinder for salt. When did that become a thing?

I think it’s probably down to the disposable grinders becoming affordable enough as not to greatly increase the cost of packaging (at the same time illuminating the cost of grinding before packaging.) It’s been pretty common for the last twenty years in my estimation.

We always had a pepper mill. Maybe not much weeknights, more of a dining room thing. My mother is pretty fancy cook and we were exposed to a lot of different food as kids, so maybe thats not representative. I am pretty sure I found myself a pepper mill fairly soon when I moved out on my own, but that’s a long time ago.

What I’d like to know, is when that pretentious business with the waiter so slowly grinding those long pepper mills started. Can’t I just have a pepper mill so I can actually get some pepper on my food? Who started that crap?

I grew up in the seventies and often helped my mother in the kitchen (as best as I could as a helping hand, not really preparing the food myself, but I learned a lot about cooking that way). I wouldn’t call my mother a fancy cook, but we always had a pepper mill, never pre-ground pepper. The only thing we still do differently: my standard pepper is black and hers is white.

I buy alaea salt, which is Hawaiian sea salt with red clay. It only comes in coarse crystal form and I have to use a grinder for table use. It may be my imagination, but when cooking with it, I find added in it’s coarse form to be less salty and smoother tasting than when ground. It’s also more mellow than regular rock salt and ground iodized salt, which I find a bit bitter.

On a Japanese TV show, I think Soko Ga Shiratai, a chef had flaked salt and had the reporter taste it in it’s natural form, then rubbed between his hands to crush it. The reporter said the crushed form was sweeter and more mellow.

One thing I have noticed over the years is just how stale and flavorless the pepper in the shakers on restaurant tables usually is. It doesn’t matter that salt hangs out in those shakers for months or even years. It matters with pepper. The flavor disappears over time.

Restaurants could remedy this problem by putting pepper mills on their tables, as the peppercorns are better at retaining the flavor.

I have resorted to asking for take-out pepper packets when the shaker pepper was particularly flat. The waiter agreed- this was around Thanksgiving and he said the pepper in the shakers was pre-Covid at least!

Pepper grinders on the table would likely get stolen.

Ground black pepper loses taste and aroma though evaporation; this happens fairly quickly. It also loses flavour when exposed to light. Thus you don’t get pre-ground black pepper being sold in groceries until it becomes economic to package it in small quantities in reliably airtight and opaque packaging which, I’m guessing, would be the later nineteenth century. So it’s the sale of preground pepper that is the innovation, not the sale of whole peppercorns.

The practice was that pepper would be ground in the kitchen (with a mortar and pestle) in advance of a meal and served either in an open container with a little spoon or in a pepper shaker, in the same way that salt was prepared and served in a salt cellar, butter on a butter dish, etc. Once the grocery trade starts selling pre-ground pepper you can serve that product in this way, but because it would not stay fresh for long this was seen as down-market.

But at some point the grocery trade started selling preground pepper in containers intended to be brought to the table and disposed of once empty. That was seen as convenient, at least for informal dining, but once the container was opened it was no longer airtight and the pepper would start to lose flavour, so again there was a trade-off of taste/quality for convenience. So for formal or prestige dining the pepper would still be ground immediately before the meal and served in a re-usable container.

I don’t know at what point peppermills designed to be used at the table came along; in the formal context that would be seen as inviting diners to do what traditionally was done by those preparing the food, so that might have been something of a barrier to their introduction/acceptance. And this may be the origin of the practice in restaurants of the serving staff grinding your pepper for you.

We always had a pepper grinder. I didn’t know houses had shakers–I thought that was a restaurant thing.

I use a number of different salts. The grains aren’t always the size I want, though I grind them by hand in a mortar, not a mill.

A friend of mine would agree with you. That’s how he ended up with a very nice tall pepper grinder.

White ground pepper was my mother’s favourite, and so that’s what was always on our table when I was younger. It was fine, and did its job, but when fresh-ground black pepper got popular, I was a convert. Nowadays, I can recognize the differences between the two, and use whichever I feel is appropriate for the dish.

It’s your imagination. Unless the finished product contains salt crystals or the cooking time doesn’t allow the salt to spread through the dish the form before it dissolved in food the matters not, except it makes it challenging to get equal amounts if you, like most people, just measure it by volume.

As for the OP, we did usually use pre-ground pepper when I was a kid, but we never did not have a pepper grinder.

The three notable restaurant pepper types I’ve noticed in the UK:

Pre-ground pepper in cheap cafes; often white pepper. I find white too acrid and dusty for general use, but maybe it survives sitting around in a pot for weeks better than black?

‘Cracked’ black pepper in more up-market restaurants, surprisingly often kept in a shaker with holes too small to let any pepper out.

Black pepper, freshly-ground with too much relish by waiters in Italian restaurants, from grossly over-sized grinders. Always adds an absurd phallic pantomime element to a meal.

It often doesn’t. Food is often salted in ways that present some whole crystals in the surface to the tongue.

That is true. It’s even more often salted in ways that doesn’t and some people are under the impression that it matters what crystal size they are using to salt their soup or pasta water.

I always thought of Peugeot as a car manufacturer (because they manufacture cars) so I was surprised to get a gift salt and pepper mill set that proudly bore the Peugeot brands. “That’s a weird thing to branch out into, but the French are gonna French, I suppose” was my initial take.

Completely the wrong way round. The domestic machinery came first; turns out once you’ve got a metal machining set up*, you can turn it to these new fangled bikes, and then you can experiment with engines, and then you end up making cars.

However, the point is, per their site, they were making domestic pepper mills by 1874, a new model in 1879, and three new models in 1881, followed by the ultra-classy “Bijou” model 1894. So, late 19th century seems pretty bang on, at least in France.

*Pepper mills were themselves an offshoot of general purpose grocers mills for coffee, grain, cereals etc.

Kitschy matching salt and pepper shaker sets have been a thing for as long as I can remember.

Specialty salts like sea salt, Himalayan salt, etc. have minerals and aromatic compounds which may change taste or fade after being exposed to air. You would freshly grind them for the same reason you grind pepper. One reason to grind regular salt is if you want some control over the size of the salt grains. Sometimes it’s better to have coarse salt versus powdery salt. In the store, you may notice that there is something called Kosher salt. This salt has larger grains and is better for sprinkling on meats. If you had your own salt grinder where you could vary the grind, you could make the salt whatever grain size you wanted.

In my memory, the change to widely using 100% ground pepper in the home happened sometime in the 90’s or 2000’s. Previously, a pepper grinder might be at the table to use as treat for stuff like salads, but not necessarily in the kitchen as the source of all pepper in cooking. Maybe grinding pepper was a reaction to the wave of cooking shows elevating home cooks. On TV they would use ground pepper whenever they needed pepper. This may have slowly influenced home cooks to buy peppercorns rather than ground pepper. Spice producers would have noticed that increase and would have sought out ways to get consumers to buy their product. Since peppercorns are pretty generic, manufacturers may have added a lid grinder to get consumers to buy their little, expensive bottle of peppercorns rather than random peppercorns in bulk.

Sweet, sweet palm grease.


Peppermills have been around forever for the reasons mentioned. I think salt mills have been around a while as well, but emerged more widespread when Himalayan salt became a thing. Not sure exactly when that was, maybe the 90’s?