How are black peppercorns different from white peppercorns? Or pink peppercorns? Or what about green peppercorns? Learn how each type of peppercorn is different and what peppercorn is best for cooking what dish. Also get our recommend for our favorite source for the best tasting peppercorns.
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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. It's time to start living!
In this post, I am going to cover all things peppercorns: what it is and what types are out there.
❓ What are Peppercorns?
Peppercorns are the fruit of a vine called Piper Nigrum.
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.
There are different types of peppercorns available. They differ based on the way they are harvested and then treated. Below you will find all of the peppercorns that are Piper Nigrum.
⚖️ Pepper vs. Peppercorn
Is there a difference between pepper and peppercorn? No, really pepper is short for peppercornns. It has nothing to do with peppers that are chiles, like the bell pepper or jalapeno. No relation. In general, it's called black pepper when you find a container of ground pepper and peppercorns when the spice is still whole. I personally think saying peppercorns sounds more fancy!
🌏 Where Does It Come From?
You can find this vine growing in Asian countries with warm climates like:
European countries spent years trying to find better spice routes to these lands to get their pepper fix. Actual wars were fought over peppercorns.
📋 Different Types
Let's get into all the different types of peppercorns. I have been adding to this list as I learn more and find new types. Click/tap on the type of jump down to it.
- Black Peppercorns
- White Peppercorns
- Green Peppercorns
- Red Peppercorns
- Purple Peppercorns
- Pink Peppercorns
- Szechuan Peppercorns
- Alligator Pepper (Grains of Paradise)
By far the most popular, black peppercorns are picked before the 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 flavor and spice to the peppercorn giving them their bite.
I have tried many different types of black peppercorns. Two have really stood out to me and they are sold by Burlap & Barrel Single Origin Spices (you will hear a lot about them in this post).
- Zanzibar Black Peppercorns - Known for it's lemony flavor, these peppercorns won a good medal from Monde Selection.
- Robusta Black Peppercorns - These peppercorns have a classic pepper kick but with bold flavor coming from being allowed to fully ripen on the vine. The name comes from the peppercorns being grown along side Robusta coffee in Vietnam.
🎧 Hear about about the spices from Burlap & Barrel by listening to our podcast - Episode 075 - Why Include Spices in Your Grocery Budget.
White peppercorns are made when the skin of the peppercorn is removed, which leaves the inner white part. Have you ever noticed when you cracker black pepper you see the color white?. The black color is only skin deep. I find that white peppercorns do not as complex flavor as black.
Why use white peppercorns instead of black? 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. Plus there are dishes were I appreciate their flavor over black. That is for sure the case when I am making potato leek soup.
Fermented White Pepper
You can also find Fermented White Pepper. Burlap & Barrel carries some from Bangka Island, Indonesia. They are highly regarded in Indonesia but very rare in the United States.
As you can guess the white peppercorns are fermented. The process takes 2 weeks.
I was attracted to these peppercorns as the description said they add an "umami flavor". After grinding them onto potatoes my wife and I thought we had put some good Parmesan on our potatoes. They had a funky, cheese flavor - way more flavor than your standard white pepper. I can't recommend them more!
Green peppercorns come from berries picked young while they are still green. They are then dehydrated. I would describe the flavor of green peppercorns to be more herbaceous. They taste more "green".
Sometimes you will find green peppercorns that come in a brine that can include just salt and water or sometimes vinegar. They are sold near the capers at the grocery store.
Red peppercorns are the fully ripened berry with the skin remaining and no oxidation allowed to take place. Since they are being allowed to fully ripen they take longer to produce thus are most expense.
I have never seen them in the store before or anywhere. As I was looking at all the spices available on the Spice House website I came across red peppercorns from Cambodia. I just had to try them.
What is a red peppercorn like? Since the pepper is allowed to come reach it's peak maturity like any berry the flavor is sweeter and more fruity tasting. I also find it to have more of a floral element. It doesn't quite have the same bite you get from black peppercorns. I think it's quite tasty and worth having along side your black peppercorns - maybe even dedicate a grinder to it.
As I mentioned the red peppercorns I tried were from Cambodia. That is pretty significant as Cambodia's peppercorn industry was decimated during the reign of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. It took decades after their reign ended to revive the pepper industry. People are returning and getting back to growing peppercorns and reviving the work of their ancestors. It's truly a great story and I am so humbled to have the chance to try the fruits of their labor.
The most recent peppercorn I discovered were these purple peppercorns from Vietnam. Burlap and Barrel sources them from a small, organic farm. The peppercorns are harvested at their peak of flavor.
And these peppercorns have a flavor that is both fruity and spicy like a Red Jalapeno.
If you look closely at the peppercorns they appear black but with purple hues. They are a great choice to serve besides your usual black peppercorns and see the taste difference. Can't ever have too many pepper choices at the table!
Please note that they are a limited release and may be out of stock from Burlap & Barrel. But you can sign up to be notified when they do come back in stock.
📛 Other Names
Besides the type of peppercorns just mentioned above, you may encounter some other names attached to your peppercorns, such as smoked or Tellicherry. Here some explanation of these terms:
|Smoked||These peppercorns have been smoked. I have yet to find a truly great smoked peppercorns but I am hoping to track some down. If your a company that sells them leave a comment I would love to try yours!|
|Tellicherry||I once thought these peppercorns come from a place in India - Tellicherry. I came to find out that this only indicated sizes. The largest sized peppercorns are sold as Tellicherry. The larger size peppercorns have strong aroma that people go wild for.|
|Malabar||Pepper that is grown on the southwest coast of India. This is where it is believed Piper Nigrum originated from.|
|Ceylon||These are peppercorns that are from Sri Lanka formerly called Ceylon. You find a lot of white peppercorns with this name on them.|
|Medley or Rainbow||You will often find mixed of different types colored peppercorns. It makes for a pretty presentation siting in a grinder at your dinner table. Usually it's a mix of black, white, pink, and sometimes green.|
➕ Other "Types of Peppercorns"
You may find some spices with the name peppercorns in them. These other ones are not the same peppercorns as the ones above. They aren't Piper Nigrum, they come from different plants. Let me share with you a few I know of.
Pink peppercorns are the most common "non-peppercorn". They grow on a South American plant called Schinus Terebinthifolius. They have a nice fruity, floral flavor. You will often find them include in peppercorn mixes than also contain black, white, and green peppercorns.
Pink peppercorns actually work really well in desserts. I have made both gelato and sugar cookies with pink peppercorns.
How do pink peppercorns compare to black peppercorns? Pink peppercorns are more brittle. You can crush them in your hands. The flavor profile is more fruity with less of a bite, but still some spiciness to them.
Szechuan peppercorns are also 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.
Wild Timur Pepper
A cousin of the Szechuan, these are harvested wild from trees growing in the Himalayas. They also cause a tingling sensation in your mouth. The flavor is said to be citrusy. You can get the from Burlap & Barrel.
While not given the name peppercorns, you may come across something called alligator pepper. Most of the time I see this spice labelled as Grains of Paradise, which is good because alligator pepper is actually a relative of Grains of Paradise.
Alton Brown used them during a couple episodes of Good Eats, which is where I first heard of them. The best way I can describe them is if black peppercorns and coriander seeds had a baby and named it Grains of Paradise.
⚙️ Grind Your Own Peppercorns
Grinding whole peppercorns yourself is always the way to go. The oils in peppercorns are violate, which mean that will dissipate over time. Cracking them yourself will ensure you get the most flavor.
While I prefer buying them whole and putting them in your own grinder, you certainly can buy them inside a grinder. Sometimes the grinders work ok, and sometimes they can give you an inconsistent grind. That is why it's better to invest in your own permanent grinder - this is mine. Then try to get your peppercorns in bulk.
Read Our Tips on How to Refill a Pepper Grinder
🌱 Can You Grow A Peppercorn Plant?
I have come across people wondering if you could take a store bough peppercorn, plant, and have it germinate and grow. Oh, That doesn't quite really work. The peppercorns have been treated so they're not going to just produce a the plant. It's a fun idea but it's not going to work.
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 reign at your table again. Tell us what your favorite type of peppercorns is in the comments below. We can't wait to hear from you!
Thanks for the information! Like you, I buy most of my peppercorns from Burlap & Barrel (their spices are incredible across the board!), but I buy my smoked peppercorns from Reluctant Trading. Have you tried those? Before I tried them, I thought they might give too much smokiness, but I've actually found they are not overpowering - they just add a nice hint of smokiness.
I have not heard of those smoked peppercorns, I will have to look into it.