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Behind the Seasoning: Black Pepper

Jars of Black Tellicherry, Malabar, and Lampong Peppercorns

Black pepper is a staple when it comes to seasonings. It’s one of those spices you probably use every day and never think about. If you’ve ever stopped to wonder,  “Where does black pepper come from?” you’ve come to the right place. Read on to learn more about this popular spice. 

Buy Pepper on grey background with spoon of coarse black pepper on the right

What is Black Pepper?

Black pepper is one of the most commonly used spices. Even people who don’t do much cooking will almost always have at least two spices: salt and pepper. The bold black pepper flakes that we use to season meats, vegetables, and nearly every other savory dish come from peppercorns that are actually the fruits of a flowering vine from the Piperaceae family. 

This spice that comes from India was first introduced to the West during the conquest of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BCE. The unique, bold, peppery flavor gained popularity in Europe. But at this point the spice was still rare and was so valued that it was even used as a currency to pay taxes, rent and more. As a result of colonization, the spice became increasingly common. While the origins of black pepper can be traced to India, the peppercorn is now grown in many tropical regions, including Vietnam, China, Sri Lanka, and Brazil. Today, pepper (sometimes nicknamed “black gold” or “king of spices”) has the distinction of being the most common spice in the world. 

Where does black pepper come from?

Believe it or not, black pepper actually comes from a fruit. The growing process isn’t so different from classic stone fruit like peaches or cherries, but of course its flavor profile differs drastically. The peppercorns that make black pepper come from a flowering vine called Piper nigrum. The fruit grows in clusters, similar to grapes, and are picked when they are still unripe and green. These small, green fruits are then left out to dry, allowing the berry to wither and wilt, becoming the pepper we all know. 

How many types of black pepper are there?

When it comes to black pepper, there is a lot going on. Seriously, there are over 600 different varieties of peppercorns. However, only a few types are used in everyday cooking and tend to be more familiar and common than all of the others. 

Black Tellicherry Peppercorns - The strong reputation of these peppercorns matches their bold flavor. Left on the vine a bit longer than most others, the flavor is more mature and complex with notes of citrus. These peppercorns are grown on the Malabar Coast of India and are thought by some to be the best black pepper you can buy. 

Black Malabar Peppercorns - Chances are the pepper on your dinner table comes from Black Malabar Peppercorns. These peppercorns are one of the most common varieties and also come from the Malabar Coast of India (hence, their name!) The flavor is bold, well-rounded and is sometimes slightly fruity.

Black Lampong Peppercorns - Black Lampong Peppercorns are known for being spicier and sharper in flavor than other varieties. Since they are taken off the vine rather quickly in their growth process, before they fully mature, they are smaller in size than your typical peppercorn. The peppercorns are grown and cultivated in Indonesia. 

Close up of a spoonful of whole black peppercorns

What Does Black Pepper Taste Like?

These small peppercorns hold a huge amount of flavor. While each variety has its own notes, black pepper can generally be described as sharp, slightly spicy, and well-rounded in flavor. Many peppercorns have fruity notes, while some can be sharper and spicier. 

What makes black pepper spicy?

If you’ve ever unexpectedly crunched down on a full peppercorn or taken a pepper-heavy bite that turns your mouth into a spicy blaze, you’re not alone. Black pepper can be rather spicy. The main flavor compound in pepper is called piperine, which is responsible for the heat in the peppercorn. While the spice isn’t hot in the same way as chiles or chile powder or even ginger, it is sharp and still leaves the mouth feeling a little prickly.  

Are There Health Benefits of Black Pepper?

The benefits of using black pepper go way beyond cooking. The spice has been used as part of different holistic treatments and ancient Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years. Black pepper is high in antioxidants, can benefit brain health, help cholesterol levels, and promote gut health. 

Is black pepper good for inflammation?

Yes! Black pepper is a great resource when it comes to inflammation. Piperine, the chemical compound specifically what makes the pepper hot, can be effective in treating inflammation - especially during the early stages. 

Is black pepper bad for you?

Black pepper is not bad for you at all. In fact, there are several health benefits to adding the spice to your soups and stews and using it as seasoning in your everyday cooking. Too much black pepper can result in an upset stomach, but you’d have to eat a lot of pepper for that to happen! 

How much black pepper per day?

Having too much black pepper in your diet won’t cause you any harm but may leave you with an upset stomach. If taking black pepper as a supplement, it is best to consult your doctor to see how much you should ingest on a daily basis. 

Close up of a spoonful of coarse black pepper

Where & How to Buy Different Types of Black Pepper

If you are looking for a specific type or grind of peppercorns, our stores have your needs covered. For a more traditional variety, our Black Malabar Peppercorns will do the trick. If you are looking to spice things up, the Black Lampong Peppercorns or the Tellicherry Peppercorns are an excellent choice. 

Not into whole peppercorns? Not a problem. We sell our Black Malabar Peppercorns ready to go in fine, coarse, and extra coarse varieties. Fine and coarse are good for everyday use, while extra coarse is loved by grillers and people who like to make their own rubs.

Finding black pepper in the store should be a breeze. Since it is one of the most commonly used spices, many varieties of black pepper are readily available at supermarkets and many food markets. Just remember that pepper starts to lose its flavor once it’s ground, so freshness matters!

If this is too much to decide online or you’re a visual person and just need to see this pepper for yourself, use our store locator feature to see where you can find products in a store near you. 

Close up of four types of peppercorns

What Can Be Substituted For Black Pepper?

Don’t panic if you find your black pepper container empty just as you were reaching for it. Other varieties of peppercorns, like Mysore Whole Green Peppercorns or Sarawak White Peppercorns have slightly different flavors but are easy substitutes. Spices like nutmeg, fresh garlic, ginger, cardamom, or cayenne pepper can be easy replacements in a pinch. While it’s less common, Grains of Paradise was used in the same ways as pepper during the Middle Ages. Check your recipe to find the best option - you could just amp up the amount of the other spices in the recipe too.

If you find yourself without any black pepper but have plenty of whole peppercorns, or vice versa, you can simply use one for the other. About ¼ teaspoon of ground black pepper is equal to 8 peppercorns. And don’t worry if you don’t have a pepper grinder. Any spice grinder will work and, in a pinch, your coffee grinder can double as a spice grinder. If you’re not picky about the grind, you can also put them in a zip top bag and use any heavy kitchen object (like a cast iron pan or meat mallet) to crush them into a coarse grind.

Another alternative is to use a spice mix or seasoning that is pepper-heavy, just make sure to leave out the salt if you're using a seasoning that features both. We suggest keeping Salt & Pepper Tableside Seasoning or Wash Park Garlic Pepper in your pantry too. Either of those can be used in place of salt and pepper in a recipe.

What is Black Pepper Used For?

Adding fresh ground pepper to most meals is always a good idea. Grind up peppercorns in a peppermill and sprinkle them on salads, fresh pasta, fish, or meat. You can even use it to make dips and marinades. Our Smoked Black Pepper Dressing showcases the great flavor of pepper, as does our Cacio e Pepe recipe. 

Pepper is a key ingredient in many spice mixes; so if you want to Make Homemade Seasonings, you'll want to keep a stash of pepper on hand. You probably already know that black pepper is a staple when it comes to cooking savory dishes. The spice is a present in most soups, stews, marinades, and stocks. It’s rare to go through a savory recipe and find that black pepper isn’t used as a seasoning. But don’t think black pepper can’t be used in sweet dishes as well. 

Similar to espresso, adding black pepper to chocolate can make the flavor richer. The spice is also tasty when it comes to plain batters, cookie mixes, and bread doughs, as a surprising bite that leaves a smooth but sharp flavor, especially in combination with other spices. It’s an essential part of the perfect Pfeffernusse Cookies (which are sometimes also called peppernut cookies.)

Pfefferneuse Cookies on a red and green plaid napkin

What Other Spice, Seasoning, and Flavors Pair Well with Black Pepper?

Since black pepper is found in so many recipes, it tends to play well with other herbs and spices. Salt and pepper is a classic pairing that balances out most dishes. Other spices like rosemary, thyme, garlic, and paprika are also tasty pairings that complement the spice. 

Recipes Using Black Pepper

You probably don't need any help using this spice, since it's so common! Use it whole in stocks and brines, add coarse or fine pepper during cooking, and grind a little bit of fresh pepper onto any dish to add a little zest before serving. But if you're looking for a little more pepper-inspo, we're happy to leave you with a few ideas.

Black Tellicherry Peppercorn - If you want the best pepper possible, many would say to use Black Tellicherry Peppercorns. Since they stay on the vine longer, they have a mature flavor that creates a mellow, slightly fruity flavor profile. 

Black Lampong Peppercorn - If you gravitate towards spice, you’ll want to use the Black Lampong Peppercorn when cooking. The peppercorns have a stronger intensity, great for adding a punch of flavor. 

  • Chicken Adobo - Your weeknight chicken dinner will be anything but boring with this flavorful Filipino-style dish. 
  • Cheddar Green Chile Polenta - If you need a new side dish or want a savory brunch, this bold polenta is an excellent choice. 

Black Malabar Peppercorns - Black Malabar Peppercorns are great for everyday use. The well-rounded spice balances out just about any meal. 

Fine, Coarse, and Extra Coarse Black Malabar Pepper - Pre-ground pepper is nothing to shy away from. Our Black Malabar Pepper comes pre-ground for an easy addition to all of your cooking. 

Want to learn even more about pepper? Check out our Peppercorn Primer or browse our Salt & Pepper collection or our Essential Kitchen Spices & Seasonings.

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