Versatile World Spices: Cooking With Peppercorns

Cooking with peppercorns adds heat and levels of flavor to any dish. This versatile spice is used around the world and comes in a variety of colors and tastes. Includes a history of peppercorns and links to peppercorn-infused recipes.

| December 1991/January 1992

Pepper is one of the most popular seasoning in the world. When cooking with peppercorns your food retains spice and flavor, elevating the dish.

Peppercorn-Infused Recipes

Breadsticks with Black Pepper and Cheddar Recipe
Buttermilk Dressing with Herbs and Green Peppercorns Recipe
Pasta with Peppered Chicken Recipe
Poached Pears with Pepper Recipe
Spicy Butter with Four Peppercorns Recipe

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.

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