with Stephanie Bullen
November 15, 2013
Centuries before crude oil, there was a different “black gold.” Piper nigrum, or black pepper, has long been one of the most popular spices in the world. Since November is National Pepper Month, we’re delving a little deeper into the prolific peppercorn.
Today’s common pantry spice was once a prized commodity used throughout history as currency, medicine, and even in cultural rituals. Entire books have been devoted to pepper’s long history, but here’s a very abridged version with some of our favorite peppercorn lore:
- Native to India and Asia, the use of pepper dates to at least 4,000 years ago, with ancient texts describing its use a seasoning in Indian feasts.
- Arab traders introduced pepper to the Roman Empire; it’s said that when Rome fell in 410, the conquering Visigoth’s demanded 3,000 pounds of peppercorn as a ransom for the city.
- During Medieval times, peppercorn was so valuable it was used to pay rent, debts, and even marriage dowries.
- Following British colonization of India, pepper became increasingly common and more available to the masses.
- Peppercorns were often used as a preservative in kitchen galleys along the seafaring spice trade routes.
- Today, India and Vietnam produce nearly half of the world’s pepper.
While black pepper is the most common, there are many other varieties of peppercorn. True peppercorn comes from the piper nigrum plant and is available in various colors—black, green, and white—depending on the berry-like fruit’s ripeness and processing. (That’s right, three different peppers from one plant!) Then there are a series of “fake” peppercorn that can look, smell, and taste like pepper, but do not originate from the same piper nigrum plant. These unique varieties include pink, Szechwan, long, and Tasmanian.
Here’s a quick primer on each variety of peppercorn:
Black Pepper: This slightly ripened, sun dried fruit has a familiar earthy and spicy flavor. To highlight the sharper notes of the peppercorn, combine it with spices like garlic, ginger, cardamom, or even cinnamon. For a more earthy combination, add thyme, cumin, turmeric, or cloves. I know it sounds crazy, but add a pinch of black pepper to pumpkin pie spice to create an Americanized version of Chinese Five Spice.
Green Pepper: The unripe fruit of the same plant, green pepper is picked before it begins to mature. It has a similar flavor to black pepper but is less earthy and a bit sharper. The heat and pungency in pepper comes from the piperine compound, which comes through more in green pepper. Use green peppercorns when making steak au poivre or with game meats. For everyday use, I find that mixing green and black peppercorns gives the familiar flavor a bit more zip.
White Pepper: White pepper is the black peppercorn with the outer husk rubbed off. That’s right, three different types of pepper can come from the same plant! Removing that outer husk lessens the piperine, giving white pepper an earthier, creamier taste. Traditionally used in white sauces and cream soups for keeping a crisp presentation, this pepper also complements the earthy notes in many Asian dishes. It’s the perfect pepper for halibut and other white fish.
Pink Peppercorns: These little beauties are actually part of the cashew family. The floral, nutty kernel is surrounded by a paper thin, pink outer layer. While not so good in a grinder (they’re too light in weight and will just spin around inside), they add a wonderful dimension to peppercorn blends and on their own the flavor works surprisingly well in desserts and with fruit.
Szechwan Pepper: Szechuan is the dried rind from the berry fruit of a prickly ash tree. It has a woody and slightly citrusy flavor, but its most unique attribute is the slight numbing, tingling effect it has on the taste buds. This effect wakes up your mouth and can change the way you taste food. It’s most popularly used in combination with other spices, like star anise and ginger, in Chinese Szechwan cuisine.
Long (or Balinese) Pepper: Among the oldest varieties of pepper, long pepper has a sweeter and earthier flavor than most other pepper and a higher heat level than black pepper. The fruit of the pepper consists of many minuscule fruits, each about the size of a poppy seed, embedded in a flower spike. Its unique shape allows it to be used similarly to a bay leaf, so you can easily infuse a peppery flavor into a dish without adding ground pepper.
Limnos Squash Tart with Pink Peppercorns
Tasmanian Pepper Berries: These interesting, bold berries have a short burst of intense heat with a slightly metallic and sweet flavor. Equally unique is their dark, almost purple hue. Native to the Southern Hemisphere, these peppery-flavored fruits are a popular condiment in Australia. When substituting these for black pepper, just remember they are about ten times as hot.
The great thing about such a variety in peppercorn is that it allows you to experiment without needing to create any wild and crazy dishes. The next time you reach for that familiar jar of ground black pepper, consider one of these alternatives instead! Here are some of our favorite pepper-infused recipes:
As always, we’d love to hear your feedback about our spices and our recipes. You can review our recipes online or send your own recipe creations to firstname.lastname@example.org.