Pepper is one of the most popular seasoning in the world. When cooking with peppercorns your food retains spice and flavor, elevating the dish.
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Pepper is arguably the most popular seasoning in the world. It has been an important and precious commodity throughout history, not only when cooking with peppercorns and flavoring food, but also serving as currency—or being demanded as ransom—in both the East and the West. The ancient Greeks and Romans cooked with it; peppercorns were so esteemed in twelfth-century England that a Guild of Pepperers was founded among London merchants; and Marco Polo was impressed by the large quantity of pepper used in thirteenth-century China.
Peppercorns are the fruits of a perennial vine, Piper nigrum, which is native to India and is now grown commercially in eastern Asia, Borneo, Brazil, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the West Indies. In the wild, vines may reach 20 feet long, but in commercial cultivation they are trained on posts 5 or 6 feet tall to simplify harvesting. The plants are grown for three or four years before they are harvested; once they are established, the vines continue to bear fruits for 15 to 20 years. The berries, which are borne in spikes, turn from green to orange and then red as they mature. To keep them from dropping, they are harvested before they ripen fully.
Black, green, and white peppercorns come from the same plant; the differences are in the maturity of the berries at the time of harvest as well as the technique of processing. All contain various oils and resins and the alkaloid piperine, which gives them their pungency.
Black peppercorns are harvested in the unripe, green state and left to dry for seven to ten days. As they dry, they shrivel and turn dark brown or black. Black peppercorns are quite hard and have the strongest flavor of the three types of P. nigrum berries. Freshly ground black pepper is highly pungent and aromatic, and can be bitingly hot.
Green peppercorns, as their name suggests, are also picked when green, but they are preserved immediately; if they are not, they begin to darken toward the black pepper stage. For years, green peppercorns were commonly preserved in brine; today, they are usually freeze-dried. Although they have a certain tanginess, green peppercorns are less pungent than black or white ones, and they are usually not as hard and are therefore easier to crack or grind.
White peppercorns are prepared from berries that have been allowed to ripen almost completely on the vines. The harvested berries are soaked in water for a day, after which the outer shell is easily removed, leaving a small gray seed which dries to tannish white. White pepper has a hint of mustiness and is milder in flavor than black pepper, although still quite pungent.
Peppercorns are used throughout the world, in every kind of cuisine. Where berries of P. nigrum aren’t available, the following peppers or pepperlike fruits are sometimes substituted.
Cubeb pepper (P. cubeba), also known as the tailed pepper, is grown in Indonesia, Java, Malaysia, and the West Indies. It has a burning, bitter taste and was the first variety of pepper to travel from Asia to the Mediterranean. It is an ingredient of the Moroccan spice blend called ras el hanout.
Long pepper (P. longum) is related to black pepper both botanically and in taste. The fruit, which grows on a vine similar to that of P. nigrum, is harvested when green and about an inch long. The flavor is very much like that of black pepper, though less pungent and slightly sweet. In the Far East, it is always used whole to flavor stews, preserves, and pickles.
Pink or red peppercorns are from shrubs or small trees (Schinus spp.), mostly native to South America, which are not related to P. nigrum. Some species of these trees are grown in warmer parts of the United States. The fruits have bright red-pink, paper-thin casings enclosing dark brown berries. The flavor of the berries is mild, though slightly pungent, with a hint of sweetness. The Food and Drug Administration, concerned about the allergic reactions of some people to Schinus berries, removed them from the market for a time in the early 1980s. Now “pink peppercorns” from Réunion, an island in the Indian Ocean belonging to France, are available without any warnings. We have heard of reactions ranging from rashes to nausea but have not been able to find information on quantities consumed or profiles of the victims. Both of us have eaten pink peppercorns occasionally and in moderate amounts for years without adverse reactions. Those concerned about possible allergies should consume pink peppercorns with care (you might try eating one as a test) or avoid them entirely.
Sichuan pepper (Zanthoxylum piperitum) is also known as Szechuan, Japanese, or anise pepper, or fagara. This deciduous tree or shrub, unrelated to P. nigrum, is native to Japan, Korea, and northern China. Each reddish-brown dried fruit contains a bitter black seed which is discarded before use. The dried fruits are a peppery, pungent spice, an essential ingredient of the Chinese five-spice mixture (which also includes star anise, cassia or cinnamon, fennel seeds, and cloves).
Peppercorns in Food
Peppercorns are graded by size and provenance. Large berries are considered premium, and those from the Tellicherry and Malabar districts in India, which are considered the most pungent and complex, command high prices.
Whole peppercorns keep almost indefinitely, but ground or cracked pepper (peppercorns that have been cracked, not ground) begins to lose aroma and pungency almost immediately after processing. The difference is quite noticeable, too, between freshly ground and commercially ground or cracked pepper.
We feel that good pepper flavor merits the investment in a quality pepper mill. In fact, we keep a light-colored wooden mill for white pepper and a dark one for black pepper. Mills with high-quality, adjustable grinding mechanisms can last a lifetime. With a mill, pepper can be ground into dishes at the stove or onto salads at the table. A heavy ceramic mortar and pestle is also useful for grinding pepper as well as other spices. Ceramic is far better than wood, which retains flavors and aromas, or metal, which can produce off-flavors and discoloration. Quantities of spices too large for the mortar can be ground in an electric spice grinder.
Besides stimulating the appetite and aiding digestion, pepper is a good flavor addition to most dishes. Black pepper is used with meat, fish, or poultry, in stocks, marinades, pickling, poaching, soups, sauces, stews, even in spice cakes and cookies. It is essential to the popular spice blend used for blackening meat and fish, and neither pepperpot soup nor steak au poivre could exist without it. We use whole peppercorns in our pickling spice mixture, in making stocks and marinades, and for poaching.
White pepper is often used in place of black where dark specks are undesirable or for a little less pungency. It is used in sauces, soups, mashed potatoes, omelets and other egg dishes, vichyssoise, and with fish and cauliflower. Green pepper is used most often in sauces, dressings, and soups; it seems to go well in vinaigrettes for green and potato salads. Pink peppercorns are used in sauces and dressings and for garnish.
Remarkably, the flavor of fruit is heightened by a little pepper. The French and Italians grind pepper over fresh strawberries or raspberries, sometimes adding a splash of vinegar. When we want to gild the deliciousness of fresh pears, we mix a little blue cheese with cream, spread it on pear slices and garnish with a generous grinding of white or black pepper. Some people like a dash of pepper on cantaloupe or watermelon.
One of the nation’s leading spice houses sells a “pepper mélange” which is a mixture of equal parts black, white, green, and pink peppercorns. A pepper mixture from France that we obtained recently also included one part of allspice berries.
In France and England, we have seen recipes for “mignonette pepper”—equal parts black and white peppercorns, ground coarsely. There is also a mignonette sauce that is wonderful served with fresh oysters: combine one part white wine with one part champagne or white wine vinegar, then add a little minced shallot and lots of freshly cracked black pepper (no white pepper).
Whatever the color—green, black, white, or pink—and whatever the grind—fine, coarse, or cracked—pepper can perfect nearly any dish with its warmth and pungency.
Susan Belsinger and Carolyn Dille, respectively from Brookeville, Maryland, and San Jose, California, are innovative food developers and coauthors of such jewels as as Herbs in the Kitchen (Loveland, Colorado: Interweave Press, 1992) and the spicy New Southwestern Cooking (New York: Macmillan, 1985).