Pepper is ubiquitous in cooking, especially in the United States. Black pepper, along with salt, is found on tables across the country, and the two are listed in tandem in nearly every savory recipe you read. Pepper’s inescapable presence has often made it seem like an afterthought, something to include because you’re supposed to.
“Pepper is so commonplace, so widely and indiscriminately used, that few people regard it as a spice, let alone as anything special,” John O’Connell wrote in “The Book of Spice.” But this wasn’t always the case.
Black pepper used to be a “rare, expensive foodstuff,” O’Connell wrote. “In the early Middle Ages rents, taxes and dowries were often paid in pepper,” and at its peak, it was as valuable as gold. If the gray powder found in shakers and paper packets is all you know, that might seem far-fetched. But the world of pepper is worthy of such attention and esteem, still, and now is the time to open your palate to the possibilities it has to offer.
“The word ‘pepper’ is used to describe dozens of different types and varieties that come in a medley of colors, a spectrum of grades, and a range of qualities. It is even used for imitators that are not pepper at all. But it applies first and foremost to the dried fruit of Piper nigrum, a climbing shrub native to India,” Caitlin PenzeyMoog wrote for Serious Eats. Black, white and green pepper fall under this category of “true” peppercorns, whereas pink and Sichuan, sometimes packaged as “Szechuan,” peppercorns come from different plants.
Though sometimes referred to as a berry, the fruit of Piper nigrum is a drupe, as are stone fruits, meaning that it consists of a seed in the center surrounded by a layer of flesh. This layer, along with the surface layers of the seed within, contains the main compound responsible for the spice’s characteristic pungent flavor: piperine. The fruit grows in clusters on spikes, similar to a bunch of grapes, shifting in color from green to red as they mature. The stage at which the fruit is harvested and how it’s processed will determine the type of pepper and what flavor dimensions it brings to a dish.
Green peppercorns are picked when the fruit is unripe. They are usually treated with sulfur dioxide and dehydrated to help keep the color intact, or preserved in brine. According to Angel Gregorio, owner of Washington’s the Spice Suite, their color is a great indication of how they taste: green and herbaceous. They still bring some heat, but it’s mixed with a vegetal quality, and if brined, that can add another layer to their flavor.
Fresh green peppercorns have a short life span, making them hard to find. Chef and cookbook author Adrienne Cheatham only encountered them when she worked at Le Bernardin in New York City, which had a peppercorn peddler who supplied the restaurant, “and the flavor was almost like raw capers meets peppercorns,” she said.
For dehydrated peppercorns, Gregorio says they are typically used in recipes that have liquids to rehydrate them, such as soups, stews and sauces. Cheatham says she likes to use green peppercorns in combination with black when making steak au poivre. “There’s something about the green peppercorn with brandy — it’s amazing,” Cheatham said.
Black peppercorns are simply green peppercorns that have been blanched and then dried, which causes the outer layer of the fruit to darken to its characteristic brown-black color. “When we think of the flavor of pepper, it is black peppercorns that we think about,” Gregorio said. The flavors and aromas, at their best, are rich, spicy and complex. In addition to the piquant heat they bring to a dish, they can carry a plethora of other notes, including citrus, pine, floral and bitter. And like any other agricultural product, pepper is impacted by terroir, making it a reflection of the region in which it’s grown.
White peppercorns are “like black peppercorns without the skin on it, which is kind of why when you crack peppercorns, you see black and white,” Gregorio said. The fruit is harvested once fully ripe and are processed in one of two ways.
“For the European-style white pepper, typically produced in and exported from India, the unripe peppercorns are soaked for a couple days to loosen the skin, then rubbed against a sieve or mesh to pull the skin off, and finally, the white pit of the peppercorn is dried in the sun,” Mari Uyehara wrote in Taste. “For the Southeast Asian white pepper, the peppercorns are picked a little later in the ripening process, after more sugars have developed, and then tied in sacks and soaked in water — ideally a slow-moving body of water like a stream or river — for ten to 14 days. The result is an altogether funkier, more robust white peppercorn — one that plays well in all kinds of East and Southeast Asian dishes.”
Because the fruit has been stripped of its outer layer of flesh, which contains the piperine compound, white peppercorns are not as peppery. It “is as pungent as black or green pepper, but it is not as complex or aromatic,” according to “Joy of Cooking.” Or, as Uyehara wrote: “White pepper has a softer heat that isn’t bullying like that of black pepper.”
The time the fruit spends in water before drying causes it to ferment, lending some funk to the spice. “The first time I ground white peppercorns in a large amount, I was so put off by the fact that they were super funky,” Cheatham said. “It kind of smells like feet.”
According to classical French culinary principles, white is the preferred pepper for fish, cream sauces and other light-colored foods so that its color doesn’t make itself noticed. “It complements a lot of rich things because it cuts through,” Cheatham said. However, “I don’t like to adhere to the rules of white peppercorn for white sauces, because once you taste different types of peppercorns and get to know the flavor profiles, you’ll find uses for them that color outside of those lines.” (She says she loves to use black pepper in bechamel sauce, for instance.) But she offers a word of caution: “White pepper is a sleeper. You can go one pinch too heavy and that is all you’re going to taste.”
Pink peppercorns, in most instances, are from the tropical Schinus terebinthifolius plant native to Brazil. While “true” Piper nigrum peppercorns do turn a reddish-pink as they mature and can be found packed in brine, they are a rarity. (“They’re more expensive because they take longer,” Gregorio said. “They’re sweeter, fruity. Much different than any of the others.”)
The “false” pink peppercorns were en vogue in the 1960s and 1970s, but fell out of fashion when they were believed to be poisonous. Further research showed that they were only an issue if handled or consumed in large quantities, and the FDA declared them safe, Robert Wolke reported for The Post in 2002. However, pink peppercorns are related to cashews and pistachios, so there is the potential for cross-sensitivity where people allergic to those nuts might want to avoid the spice.
While pink peppercorns do have a mild pepperiness, they are more known for being floral and fruity. In dishes, it’s “almost like adding a grating of lemon zest to something where you just get this other quality that brings out so much more dimension of flavor,” Cheatham said. I enjoy them most in desserts, but they also make regular appearances in seafood dishes. When using them, note that their delicate, papery nature makes them ill-suited for standard pepper mills — instead, lightly crush them in a spice grinder, mortar and pestle, or with a knife.
“I love black peppercorn,” Cheatham said. “It’s my all-purpose pepper.” But she also recognizes the value in the different types and how they can impact one’s cooking. “Think outside of just the black pepper box,” Gregorio echoes. If you’ve only tried black pepper and are looking for where to start, get a blend of peppercorns the next time you shop for spices.
“As a non-classically trained spice girl, I always tell my customers that there are no rules,” Gregorio says. So if a recipe calls for one type, feel free to swap part or all of the amount for another. “The biggest guideline is don’t overdo it,” Cheatham says. “I love pepper, but too much pepper can absolutely kill a dish.” And if there’s one thing to always remember when it comes to pepper: whenever possible, it’s best to grind it fresh.
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