Shaking is so last year. If you want to add pepper to your dish, you need to rub.
Salt and pepper shakers are enigmas.
It’s clear why they exist. That’s not the confusing part.
What has always eluded me is why they never seem to work the way they’re intended.
Take the salt shaker, for example. My experience with it involves vigorously shaking it until I accidentally knock over the cup of water beside my plate, or accidentally touch my food with the lid.
There’s also the (highly likely) risk that I’ll oversalt my food because it’s almost impossible to see tiny flecks of crystal clear salt hit my food. (Yes, you should use the shake-into-hand trick to prevent oversalting.)
The pepper shaker is a tale of similar regard. Usually I don’t even bother using it. The flavor is so dull and listless it’s not worth the effort.
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Additionally, pepper can get clogged in the lid because moisture makes clumps, which stick together and prevent the pepper leaving the lid. Almost no amount of shaking will render any quantity of usable (let alone flavorful) pepper.
(This is where I’ll remind you that a study from ABC News found that the pepper shaker on your restaurant table is the germiest item, with more bacteria than even the toilet seat).
Recently, however, a video of a salt-and-pepper-shaker hack made its way into my news feed, and I can safely say, as a person who finds herself at least knee-deep in many internet viral hits, that this is one of the only times I’ve been left speechless by something I saw on the internet (comment sections, not applied).
Behold, the sorcery.
What you’re witnessing here is Twitter user Kellie from Oklahoma displaying the pepper shaker problem: very little comes out. Then, she rubs the bottom of the salt shaker with the bottom of the pepper shaker, and a thick stream of pepper flows.
Is this magic?
No, it’s just vibrations.
When you (violently, if you’re me) shake the pepper, you create a compressed bulb of the spice within the lid. It’s as if you turned the fine grains into one tight snowball. You might be able to shake a meager few pinches’ worth of pepper free, but you won’t get much.
However, if you create a steady stream of vibration within the shaker, the grains don’t have time to become compressed, and the gentle movements help shake them free, right onto your salad, eggs, steak, you name it.
Are the ridges on the bottom of pepper shakers meant for this?
No, probably not.
The salt and pepper shaker duo as we know it today didn’t exist widely before the turn of the century. Indeed, they weren’t commonplace in American households until the post-Great Depression era.
At about the same time, other glass bottles were becoming more commonly produced, including mason jars, pickling jars, even Coca-Cola bottles. Many of them did have, and still have today, ridges along the bottom rim.
One explanation, which seems the most plausible, is that the ridges are not meant for rubbing or shaking. Instead, they’re designed to hold glass jars in place.
When cooled liquids in these jars begin to warm up, the jars and bottles collect condensation on the outside of the container. This condensation eventually runs and pools at the bottom of the jar.
On a slick countertop, a bit of moisture is enough to make glass jars slip and slide. Ridges, however, may act as brakes so no one loses a jar of pickles or sees their tea go sliding off the table at lunch.
Is this the best way to get pepper?
You absolutely do get more pepper out of the shaker with this method, and you don’t have the risk of throwing your elbow out of socket either. I tried this method, taking three “loops” around the shaker rim and collected almost 1/8 teaspoon of pepper. Three shakes of the pepper bottle was enough to be a “pinch,” if you’re generous.
If you like a lot of pepper—and quickly—this certainly is a great way to get it.
However, if you like your pepper to have flavor, don’t bother with the rubbish that’s in the pepper shaker at all. Pepper, like many other spices, quickly loses its pungent flavor when it’s exposed to air. If you leave pepper in an open-air shaker for months (or years, if you’re being honest), the stuff you’re shaking onto your food is more likely to resemble sawdust than spice.
Opt for a pepper grinder with whole black peppers, and grind precisely what you need as you need it. The flavor is stronger, which means you’ll use less, and it’s contained within the grinder, which prevents bacteria and moisture from finding a way in.
Now, do we think this method would work with glass ketchup bottles? I’m off to find out!