Alton Brown refers to the peppercorn as “the King of Spices”. And it truly is. What is the most commonly used spice in American kitchens? There is no competition to the peppercorn. The sad truth is that most American kitchens are full of a pre-ground black pepper that long ago lost it’s spice. If you have never had freshly ground black pepper then your taste buds have never lived. In this post, I am going to cover all things pepper: what it is and what types are out there.
Peppercorns are the fruit of a vine called Piper Nigrum. You can find this vine growing in Asian countries with warm climates like India, Malaysia, and Indonesia. You will find some peppercorns given a regional name (Malabar & Tellicherry are from Indian, Sarawak from Malaysia, and Lampong from Indonesia). European countries spent years trying to find better spice routes to these lands to get their pepper fix.
Peppercorns contain violate oils. When you crack them the oils are released and they flavor your food. Once cracked the oils will begin to dissipate, which is why you don’t want to buy ground pepper- you want to grind it yourself. Check out my post on pepper mills.
There are different types of peppercorns available. They differ based on the way they are harvested and then treated.
Black peppercorns are picked before they berry has fully ripened. They are then allowed to dry in the sun. Oxidation then takes place which turns the berry black. This process also brings additional flavors to the peppercorn, which is why black peppercorns pack the biggest flavor punch.
Recipe: Beef Tenderloin Steaks
White peppercorns are made when the berries are allowed to fully ripen. The skin is then removed, which leaves the inner white part remaining. White peppercorns do not have as much flavor as their black counterpart. So why use it? Well it’s good for dishes that are pale in color. If your making a light colored soup, it will be much more attractive to use white pepper.
Recipe: White Cheddar & Shells
Green peppercorns come from berries picked at the same time as berries used for black peppercorns. These berries are placed in a brine instead of being allowed to oxidize. Some people confuse them for capers as they are often sold near each other.
Pink peppercorns are actually not true peppercorns. They grow on a South American plant called Schinus Terebinthifolius. They have a nice fruity, floral flavor.
Recipe: Pink Peppercorn Gelato
Szechuan peppercorns, like pink ones, are not true peppercorns. They are from the Zanthoxylum Simulans plant. They are not as pungent as black peppercorns. Szechuan peppercorns have a lemony undertone and cause a numbing sensation on your tongue. They are used most often in Asian dishes that are meant to be spicy. Only the outer husk is used as the inner part does not have a pleasing texture (unless you enjoy eating sand). Szechuan was banned in the United States from 1968 to 2005 because they were thought to carry a bacteria that could cause damage to citrus crops. It never had anything to do with health concerns. In 2005, the FDA allowed them to return as long as they heated to 160 degrees to ensure the citrus destroyer bacteria was killed.
I first encountered smoked peppercorns at By the Pound (Ann Arbor, MI) which is a bulk food store (great places to buy peppercorns). The mixture I bought contains black, white, and green peppercorns that have been smoked to up the flavor ante. Would be worth it to have a second pepper mill on hand for smoked peppercorns. Your guests will love you.
Red peppercorns are the fully ripened berry with the skin remaining and no oxidation allowed to take place. However, because of expense and time, you will not find these on a store shelf near you. You’ll have to travel to the places they are grown, mainly India to taste the red peppercorn.
Hopefully you learned something new today about the “King of Spices”- the peppercorn. Whether you choose black, white, green, or even the not-true peppercorn, the pink, make sure you always buy whole and grind them yourself. Let pepper regin at your table again.