Called the “king of spices”, pepper has a long history of being used as a seasoning, a preservative, and even currency. By far the most frequently used spice, pepper adds an excellent depth of flavor to nearly any savory dish, and many sweet dishes as well.
Black, white, and green peppercorns all come from the same vine. They grow in clusters (like grapes), and are harvested in various stages of growth.
Green peppercorns are young when they are picked and dehydrated, with a resulting mild flavor. The black peppercorns are left on the vine to fully mature and develop a stronger flavor profile. White peppercorns are actually black peppercorns, which have been soaked to remove the outer casing. This gives the white peppercorns a more intense flavor, with a slightly fermented taste and smell from the soaking process.
Pepper begins to lose flavor as soon as it’s ground, so for peak flavor, grind pepper as you need it.
If you have never used freshly ground pepper you do not really know what pepper tastes like. The outer shell serves to seal in freshness and once this protection is lost, flavor diminishes rapidly. Some claim to notice a difference within 30 minutes, and most agree that much of the aroma and flavor is lost within 30 days of being ground.
While the full flavor of pepper will not be released until the outer shell has been cracked, whole peppercorns reveal much of their character by aroma. While different colored peppercorns have distinctively different flavors, it also true that different varieties of one color such as the Lampong and Malabar black peppercorns also have subtle difference in aroma and taste.
It does not take a highly refined sense of smell to distinguish the differences in aroma. Try having a “pepper tasting” some time by first smelling different varieties directly from an open bag. (If you try smelling some roasted coffee beans between peppers you will have less carryover from the previous sample). You may finish by tasting in your mouth the variety that your nose prefers, but it is difficult to taste more than one pepper without having the flavors intermingle.
All Pepper varieties are derived from the same vine (Piper nigrum). Different varieties result from picking the berries at various stages of ripening and processing them differently. Common varieties include the following:
These are berries that are picked long before maturity in the green stage and either air-dried, freeze-dried or pickled in brine to prevent fermentation. They are aromatic with a fresh flavor, but are not pungent. In the dried form they are considered essential for French, Creole and some Thai cooking. This is the also the pepper called for in a traditional “peppercorn” sauce.
Because of the extra processing required and the smaller yield, these are some of the more expensive peppercorns. In recent years Brazil has become the chief source for this variety if you are able to find them at all.
We offer freeze-dried green peppercorns from Brazil, which are more expensive, but widely recognized to have superior appearance and a flavor that some prefer. We also offer air-dried peppercorns from India. These are much more economical and some prefer the flavor of the air-dried variety.
Pink or Rose Pepper
This is not a true pepper but is a dried berry from a small mastic tree related to the rose bush and found on the French Island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean. (These are also commonly referred to as “Red Peppercorns” in trade and in many cookbooks.) They are related to, but different from the berries of the “pepper tree” that grows wild in Brazil and some parts of the southern USA.
These are used whole in nouveau cuisine dishes or mixed with other varieties for general use. The flavor is most similar to that of Black Pepper, but milder and more acidic with a hint of sweetness. This variety is expensive and difficult to find at the average grocery store. We have found a quality source with reasonable prices.
These are fully mature berries that have been picked partiall ripe and had their outer skin removed. This is generally done by soaking the berries in water for a number of days and then rubbing the outer skins off. It is also sometimes done mechanically while dry. The aroma is earthy and taste is hot and creamy but not pungent or aromatic. It is quite distinctive in aroma anf flavor from that of the black pepper and almost never used as final seasoning.
White pepper is commonly used for sauces, soups, potatoes and beverages. (This is most popular pepper in northern Europe, outselling black pepper by 10:1, reverse the ratio of the USA.) Due to the extra processing involved white pepper is slightly more expensive than black peppercorns from the same origin. We offer several varieties as follows:
a. Muntok: The most common and well known variety of White Pepper originates from the small Indonesian Island of Bangka and the berries are named Muntok after the islands main port. It is commonly available, economical and preferred by some compared to the more rare white peppercrns.
b. Sarawak: Sometimes a superior product is produced in a region not known for a different type of product. This is the case with Sarawak “extra Fancy” White Peppercorns from Malaysia. These berries are large and flavorful and with a uniform creamy white color and hot flavor. The price is higher than for Muntok and is popular with our customers.
c. Penja White: This may be our hottest white pepper and quite expensive. It originates from the Penja Valley of Cameroon where pepper was only first culivated in the late 1950’s.. Their production is quite small, and almost all of ot goes to France, which is where our supplier is located. If you prepfer white pepper and like it hot, this may be the one for you.
d. Talamanca Del Caribe: This single-estate pepper was grown in Ecuador, processed to a very high quality standard, and was the hottest white pepper we have ever tasted. Unfortunately, the owner sold this farm in about 2007 and it was incorporated into a neighboring pineapple plantation. We sold the last of our stocks in late 2011 and so this product no longer exists.
In the world of pepper, there is probably no other term that causes more confusion than “Red Peppercorns”. Some persons or cookbook publishers use this term interchangeably with what we call “Rose” or “Pink” peppercorns. That wid be fines except for the fact that there is a true (piper nigrum) Red Peppercorn. (Do not confuse with “Red Pepper” which is finely ground Cayenne and other capsicum peppers.) Red Peppercorns are extremely rare and not presently imported into the USA to my knowledge. It is generally safe to assume that any recipe that calls for “Red Peppercorns” is in fact referring to the “Rose or Pink Pepper” described above.
So what are they? Red peppercorns are fully ripened berries that are bright red in color when they are picked. They may be used fresh, but they spoil quickly, so they can be preserved in brines, freeze-dried, or air dried. The air-dried samples I evaluated from Cambodia looked like very large black peppercorns, with a slight reddish-burgundy hue mixed with the black color. The aroma is complex with little pungency, and the flavor is hot.. (Is this respect the flavor is very similar to what you get with the highest grades of Tellicherry, as those berries are almost ripe when picked.) It would be expected that thr frezzeed dried or brend repeppercorns would retain their red color and have a completely different flavor. We can’t say for sure until we get some to try.
This is the most popular form of pepper in the USA. Black peppercorns are produced by picking the mature but unripoe berries as they are beginning to turn from green to yellow. They are then boiled briefly and then allowed to ferment and dry naturally in the sun (or by forced-air heating) until wrinkled and black. Black Pepper is moderatly hot, pungent and aromatic.
Most generic black pepper sold in stores is a mixture from a variety of sources bought at the lowest possible price. None of the vareties or grades that we offer would fall into thois category. We sell only distinct varieties of the highest grade available with the names indicating the origin as follows:
a. Malabar: is the “original” pepper and is a popular variety that originates from the Malabar Coast in the SW portion of India, where peppercorn cultivation first began. The berries have a slightly greenish hue. This is an excellent pepper with pungent aroma and robust flavor available at a modest price. This variety represents for many what “pepper” should smell and taste like.
b. Tellicherry: comes from the same region as Malabar and is a family of quality designations representing the largest and highest quality berries, and is widely recognized as a premium product with more name regognition than any other variety. These berries are picked much cloer to fully ripe than the Malabar, as the berry color reaches yellow-orange or even red. The color is a dark chocolate brown to black and the flavor is highly complex and aromatic. Tellicherry peppercorns are large in size and have a complex spicy aroma and slighly more heat with hints of cedar, flowers and cherries. The complexity in aroma and flavor somes at the expense of pungency, which is why some tastes prefer Malabr. There are several grades of Tellicherry and they vary in price and flavor.
c. Sarawak Black: In recent years the Malaysian Pepper Board has encouraged growers and processors to experiment with techniques such as rapid harvesting and collection and forced air drying, aimed at increasing product quality rather than reducing costs, and these efforts are paying off. Premium Sarawak Black pepper is a medium-sized pepper with brown-grayish hues. It has a mild flavor with a fresh aroma that is often described as fruity with hints of chocolate, licorice and syrah.
d. Lampong: comes from the island of Sumatra in Indonesia and is similar in some respects to Sarawak except for being hotter. This is the variety most often sold in the UK. Lampong peppercorns have an earthy and smoky aroma. This peppercorn is slightly smaller in average size than others, and it grinds extremely well in almost any mill.
e. Vietnamese: Some of the world’s best spices are coming from Vietnam these days and their pepper is no exception. This pepper is often compared to Lampong but I find the berries to be much larger and with a pleasant lemony/citrus aroma and taste that is different from Lampong. This variety is very versatile and worth trying. We are one of the few retailers to offer it as a distinct variety.
f. Talamanca Del Caribe: This was one of our most popular peppercorns untill the production ended as described above. Not everyone’s favorite, it but it was a “pepper-lover’s pepper”. The aroma was earthy, bold, and pungent. The flavor was bold and hot and it had what we called “the ten-second delayed fuse”, after which a second, stronger sensation of heat would come on and linger. It was and and is, the hottest black pepper we have tasted to date. Our stocks sold out before the end of 2010, there is no more available anywhere, and we do not have another product that is equivalent.
g. Madagasacar: This is another variety largely unknown to American Chefs. Madagascar was once a colony of France, and the close relationship continues with most of their peppercorns being exported to there. Madagascar pepper features a medium sized berry, brownish-gray in color, with a rich aroma reminiscent of hickory smoke or charred oak barrels. The flavor is mild and not too hot. Some Chefs in France refuse to use anything else. Definitely worth a try.
h. Kampot: Hailing from Cambodia, Kampot is an organic, luscious black peppercorn that is crisply sweet in fragrance with overtones of guava and eucalyptus. It is a large berry with an equally large paper-white center that ensures good heat. Kampot’s flavor is crisp with a mildly smoky finish.
Pepper has been grown in this region for over 100 years, but, the Kmer Rouge regime destroyed the pepper plantations in favor of rice production in the latter part of the 20th century and the industry has only recently begun to emerge from this wreckage. This variety is largely unknown in the USA, but highly regarded abroad, with most of the production going to Japan or France. We have this variety in stock on occasion.
k. Pohnpei: This is another area of micro-production that only dates back to the early 1960’s. Pohnpei (formerly Ponape) is a small island in Micronesia that became famous for its high quality but limited pepper production> The industry was virtually eliminated by government policies in the 1980’s and 1990’s. As a result there is only a singl;e surviving groweer on Pohnpei.. As a result, the price remains very high. This peppercorn is organically grown, and has a deep black color, an appealing balanced aroma, and a flavor that is often described as sweet. This peppercorn has a small but intensely loyal following. We kep this peppercorns in stock until mid 2012 when the government meddled once again, and prohibited shipping via the Postal Service, which was the only practical way to ship from this remote location.
l. Penja Black: As detailed above, the pepper indistry is Cameroon has existed for only 50 years and is very small in sizeand total production, almost all of which goes to France (which is we we get it from). The Penja Black Peppercorn is a small to medium-sized peppercorn with a uniform dark brown/black color. The aroma is rich and pungent with a hint of Cumin. The flavor is also pungent with a high heat that comes on quickly and has “depth”. This is another “pepper lover’s pepper”. If you are mourning the loss of the Talamanca Del Caribe, you might like this one, It is expensive, but it will be work it to many,
Szechuan peppercorns: Szechuan (Sichuan) peppercorns are not a true pepper at all, but berries from the Prickly Ash tree native to China. It is widely grown and consumed in Asia and is a vital component in many Chinese and Japanese dishes. The peppercorns are air-dried rust-colored berries with hair-thin stem connecting to a split husk containing a black seed. The husk and the seeds are often separated as they have different flavors.
Szechuan peppercorns have an aromatic and resinous flavor that leaves the lips tingly and slightly numb when tasted directly followed by a moderate heat that lingers. The peppercorns are often lightly roasted before crushing in a mortar and pestle and go well with fish, chicken and duck, or any dish where a spice heat is desired.
Harvest and production
Pepper plants grow in hot and humid tropical climates. Indonesia and India are the largest producers of peppercorns, with Brazil, Malaysia, and Vietnam close behind.
The green, black, and white varieties all come from the same plant, Piper nigrum, and start out as small white flower buds. Each color represents a different stage of maturity. Green peppercorns are harvested at the earliest stage of ripeness. Black peppercorns are picked at the midway point of ripeness; when left to dry, they shrivel and take on their signature black color. White peppercorns are picked when the berries are ripest. At this point, the berries are actually red in color, but after days of being soaked in salt water, they shed their red outer shells and reveal their white inner seeds.
Pink peppercorns, however, come from a completely different plant — the Schinus molle, also known as a South American pepper or Peruvian peppertree. The red berries that grow on this plant are sold as pink peppercorns.
Finally, the grayish-whitish Szechuan peppercorns come from pepper trees called Zanthoxylum simulans.
Though the general essence and flavor of peppercorns are similar — all are known to leave some heat and a bit of spice on the tongue — there are slight differences between each variety.
Black is the most pungent of the peppercorns, which could be due to the stage at which it’s picked: halfway ripe, but not so ripe that its heat characteristic begins to turn sweet. Black peppercorns also have a rougher texture that makes them look a little like tiny currants.
White peppercorns have a much milder aroma that can also be a little musty. A pungency of heat is still present, but not quite as prominently.
Green peppercorns smell hot and peppery, and deliver a good amount of heat that lingers on the tongue. The outer surface is much smoother in texture than that of the black peppercorn. Straight off the vine, the green variety has a shiny coat; when dried, the berries have a matte finish.
Pink peppercorns carry a unique potpourri-like smell and deliver a sweeter, fruitier taste. Their texture is much more delicate to the touch, and the outer skins flake off more easily.
In contrast to black, white, green, and pink peppercorns, Szechuan peppercorns are sharp with a side of heat, and emit a lemony citronella aroma. They are generally sold toasted, which masks their citrusy flavor with browned, woody notes.
Getting the best flavor
Preground pepper tastes faded and dull. Instead, purchase whole peppercorns. When you’re ready to use them, grind or crush them by hand.
Choosing the right grinder
There are basically three kinds of pepper grinder: manual handheld, electric, or a mortar and pestle.
If a handheld grinder suits you, be sure to purchase a metal or wooden option instead of a plastic one. Plastic eventually wears out, flaking off bits of plastic into your pepper.
Electric spice grinders are very similar, and can be easily interchangeable with propeller-style coffee grinders. The electric grinder gets a good amount of pepper ground with the touch of a button, and can be used if you prefer to have a small dish of freshly ground pepper at the table or readily available in the kitchen. Some users, however, claim that electric grinders can leave a slight metallic taste on ground spices.
The small bowl and mallet known as a mortar and pestle is a favorite among some diehard cooks. Mortars and pestles come in a wide variety of sizes and materials; the marble and stone ones work best for crushing peppercorns.
Using whole peppercorns
Peppercorns that are slightly crushed (either by using a mortar and pestle or the side of the blade of a chef’s knife) can be useful pressed into steaks prior to grilling, and are commonly used in different types of marinades.
Try slightly crushed green peppercorns sprinkled atop a finished steak or grilled shrimp for some added color. Add pink peppercorns as a garnish sprinkled on, or even pressed into, soft cheeses.
Using ground peppercorns
Ground pepper is commonly used alongside salt for seasoning meats, poultry, and fish. For these uses, black and white pepper can be used interchangeably. If you’re serving guests who are sensitive to pepper’s heat, try substituting green peppercorns for a slightly milder taste.
You might try finishing a salad with freshly ground pink peppercorns instead of the common black. Or add ground pink peppercorns to a tomato sauce or soup to complement the sweetness of the tomatoes.
Some people prefer to use freshly ground white pepper in white soups and cream sauces, avoiding the black specks usually visible from ground black peppercorns.
Szechuan peppercorns turn up in such popular stir-fries as kung pao chicken. Their bright-but-deep flavor complements meat dishes.
Dried peppercorns will keep for one year in an airtight container at room temperature. Fresh green and pink peppercorns are often sold in brine or water and should be kept in the refrigerator. Ground pepper will keep for a mere three months.
Non-culinary uses for pepper
Did you know that black pepper can be used as a deterrent for insects around the home? Mix half a teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper in a quart of warm water, then spray the solution on house plants to do away with ants, potato bugs, silverfish, and even roaches and moths.