Along with salt, pepper is on nearly every table. Historically significant, pepper is the most common spice in use. Nutritionally beneficial and medicinally positive, pepper offers a unique flavor and a variety of uses. It is the third most common ingredient behind water and salt. There are a variety of peppercorns commonly used.
This master spice is versatile in all forms. It offers up a vibrant flavor suitable for any dish. Historically, it has led an illustrious and full life-giving fortune and paying ransoms. Pepper is used daily by most people and offers health benefits along with adding its unique flavor. Reach for that pepper shaker or grinder and enjoy all the benefits it has to offer!
Types of Pepper
Peppercorns (piper nigrum) ground for use on the table and in cooking originally only came from India but is now also cultivated in Indonesia, Malaysia, China, Sri Lanka, Madagascar, and South America. India is still the major producer of this spice with over half of the product coming from there.
A perennial bush, which often grows wild, is produced in mounds with trellises similar to grape vines. These mounds are usually about 8-feet tall but the bush itself can grow up to 33 feet in the proper climate. The bush has a round and smooth jointed stem; dark green leaves which are smooth, broad, and have seven nerves in them; and small white flowers. The flowers become the berries which are harvested. The flowers grow in clusters of up to 150. Grown from cuttings, the bush bears fruit at three to four years until about fifteen years. Typically the pepper bush grows within about 20 degrees of the equator some believe the closer to the equator the hotter the peppercorn.
From this bush, three types of peppercorn are harvested: black, green, and white. The difference in the peppercorns come from when the berry of the bush is harvested and how it is processed.
Black peppercorns are the dried berry and the most pungent and strongest in flavor of the three. The berries are picked just before they are ripe and are typically sun-dried. As they dry, an enzyme is released which darkens the hull of the berry to anywhere from dark brown to jet black. Within the hull is a lighter seed which causes a variance in the color of the ground pepper.
Black pepper comes in many forms; whole, cracked, and ground. The ground pepper has varying degrees of coarseness from fine to coarse.
Some of the uses are as follows:
whole pickling and stocks – cracked for meats and salads – ground for everything else
Currently, the Tellicherry pepper is the most popular. It is named after the port and region it is gathered from. It is the oldest source of black pepper, though Alleppey and Pandjung are longtime ports for the export of this spice. The Tellicherry peppercorn is larger and darker than others. It has a more complex flavor which is why it is more popular.
Tellicherry and Malabar come from the same region in Southwest India. The Tellicherry is picked slightly closer to being ripe and is considered to be slightly better than the Malabar. Malabar has a green hue with a strong flavor.
Green peppercorns are the green berry picked long before they are ripe, which can be freeze-dried to preserve the smooth texture and bright color. While the green peppercorn gives a strong tart punch of flavor to begin with, it does not linger long in the mouth. These can also be pickled for shipment. The berries for the green and black peppercorns are actually picked at about the same time but the green are not allowed to dry causing which prevents that enzyme from activating. Green peppers only come packed in brine, water, or freeze-dried.
Some of the uses are as follows:
meat sauces – poultry – vegetables – seafood
The United States is one of the largest consumers of black pepper and has a much higher demand for the black pepper compared to white pepper. However, Europeans prefer the white pepper over the black.
This peppercorn is the mature berries that are given a short water bath in order to remove the husks before the remaining seed is sun-dried. The removal of the husk prevents the dark color forming during the drying process. As the berry ripens, it becomes a bright red color. During the drying process, it becomes white. A second way for the white pepper to be harvested is to harvest the green berry, soak it for several days before rubbing off the outer layer. The remaining seed is then either dried for use whole or ground. This pepper has a long drawn out flavor which lingers.
White pepper has two forms: whole and ground. Generally white is preferred over black for any dish where the pepper might show like some of the following uses:
white sauces – cream soups – fish – poultry – grilled meats
These are rare and difficult to find, particularly in the United States. They are the red berries ripened on the vine. Instead of picking the berries, they are harvested with part of the vine. These are best used within a very short period of time. The red peppercorn has a sweet and mellow flavor in contrast to the pungent strong flavor of the black. Since these are rare in the United States, most recipes calling for red pepper are referring to ground cayenne or red chile’s.
A rare find, this is created from the red berries of the piper nigrum and are preserved in a brine. These are too soft to grind so are often put into a recipe whole. The best dishes to use these are egg dishes and salads.
Blends and Combinations:
Blending the three types of pepper doesn’t really enhance the flavors; however, there are two blends which can work nicely. Black and green combined add a bit more bite to a dish. Black and white combined makes the flavor linger longer. If pink peppercorns (see below), as opposed to the pink peppercorns (piper nigrum family) is added to a combination, its flavor is easily overpowered.
Blends of different kinds of peppercorns are typically called medleys.
Peppercorns can also be blended with other products like garlic, coriander, lemon, shallot, and chipotle.
Many people have had lemon pepper chicken or fish, the main spice in those dishes come from a combination of lemon and pepper.
Long pepper, generally absent from the modern culinary world is something of a culinary injustice we all owe to ourselves to try.
Like grains of paradise, long pepper was freely used alongside (and often confused with) common black pepper in kitchens from ancient Rome to Renaissance Europe. But the arrival of chiles from the New World and the rising popularity of black pepper shoved long pepper out of the culinary spotlight.
Its flavor is much more complex than black pepper, reminiscent of spice blends like garam masala more than a single spice. It possesses black pepper’s heat and musk, but in a less harsh, more nuanced way, tempered by sweet notes of nutmeg, cinnamon, and cardamom. Its finish lingers on the tongue with a tobacco-like coolness; where black pepper stings, long pepper balms.
There are actually two commercially grown species of long pepper: piper longum, from India, and the cheaper and wider-spread piper retrofactum, from Indonesia (the island of Java). Their flavors are similar enough as to be interchangeable, but they’re worth mentioning for inspiration about cuisines the spice works well with. South Indian cooks use long pepper in lentil stews and pickles, and its sweet heat works well with Southeast Asian-style roasted meats. Long pepper has been prized for its aphrodisiac properties. One recipe, from the Kama Sutra, calls for long pepper to be mixed with black pepper, other spices, and honey, with the promise to “utterly devastate your lady.” The concoction is applied externally.
Long pepper (piper longum) originates in central Africa but is now in India, Africa, and Eastern China. This is harvested in summer. The bud fruit is about an inch long and consists of lots of tiny black and gray seeds. The taste is like a mild pepper and ginger combination. This was commonly used during the Middle Ages. This one can substitute for common pepper and is best used in sweet hot recipes accenting the ginger flavor. Some suggestions for use are on fruit (particularly fresh) or in coleslaw, this prevents the flavor from being cooked away.
There are several varieties of peppercorns which do not belong to the piper nigrum family. These come from several different types of plants. The flavors of these are different from the piper nigrum plant so should not be used as a substitute. Some are as follows:
Pink peppercorns (shinus molle) is grown in Madagascar, Mexico, and Australia. The pale pink berries are harvested in the summer. Initially, this has a pepper flavor but ends tasting sweet. It is good for vegetables and seafood and is not a good replacement for regular pepper. This can cause an allergic reaction in children so follow the recipe precisely. The schinus terebinthifolius species is used as a pink pepper. The plant looks similar to a holly tree and it grows in parts of the US like the shinus molle. There is an additional pink peppercorn which comes from the Baies rose plant (euonymus phellomanus) which is also from Madagascar. Pink peppercorns (shinus molle) is grown in Madagascar, Mexico, and Australia.
Sichuan or Szechuan pepper is found commonly in China and used in many Chinese and Japanese dishes, but also adds a zing to chicken noodle soup. The pepper derives from the berries of a prickly Ash tree native to China. These are spicier than the regular pepper.
Negro Pepper (xylopia aethiopica) is grown in Ghana and Malawi. This one is harvested in the fall and when dried has dark brown seed pods. Like the piper nigrum, it is a fruit which is dried in the sun. Similar to piper nigrum, this has a strong flavor but it leaves a bitter aftertaste so is not a good substitute for regular pepper.
Pepperleaf (piper sanctum) is cultivated in Peru and Argentina. The leaves are harvested year round. The green leaf is plucked from a bush which is in the pepper family. It is very similar to cilantro and best used fresh. It has a little bite but mellows to a sweeter flavor.
History of Pepper
Like salt, this spice has a long and illustrious past. It has been popular for more than 4000 years; cultivation of pepper began about 1000 BC.
Pepper was actually the first spice used in Europe and helped to motivate the Spanish, English, and Dutch to find trade routes to India. It helped develop the relations among East, West, and Middle East countries. This spice was a luxury and only used by the upper class up until the early 1800s before average citizens could afford to use this spice. This spice is so valuable that even in some parts of Asia, poorer families hold peppercorns as a type of savings.
The spice dates back much further than these somewhat modern trade routes though. It was highly prized in ancient Greece, being given as an offering to the Gods, used for paying taxes, and even in paying ransoms. Some of the ransoms were paid to the Ottoman Tribes. Rome also utilized pepper for taxes. The famous Roman Centurions received peppercorns as part of their pay.
The Middle Ages saw the price of pepper equal that of gold. The upper class often kept stores of it and accepted it as payment for rent and other debts. One pound of peppercorns was worth three weeks of work during this time frame.
Pepper is known as the king or master spice because even today it makes up about a quarter of the spice trade. Historically, it was a popular spice to use because it flavored bland food and covered up any signs of spoilage.
Aside from culinary deliciousness, pepper has other uses. It is toxic to several insects so is an effective insecticide. You can sprinkle pepper around non-garden areas to keep insects out. Mix a teaspoon of freshly ground pepper to one quart of warm water and spray it on plants to kill ants, potato bugs, and silverfish.
Pepper has also been used as a brandy flavor and in perfumes.
The best way to determine the flavor of peppercorns is to smell them. To cleanse your nose and sense of smell try smelling coffee beans in between each sample.
Almost every recipe calls for a sprinkle or dash of pepper. For the novice, this can be a difficult measurement. Should you shake your pepper shaker once or twice? Should the grinder be turned five or six times? With the small measurements, it really doesn’t matter. However, if you are concerned about the intake of pepper, then five turns on your typical pepper grinder is about a 1/8 of a teaspoon.