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All about peppercorns

(article, Jennifer Fields)

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Good cooks know the power of pepper. Whether you’re preparing a beloved egg dish, a homemade Caesar salad, or a plate of ravioli, it’s no secret that freshly ground black peppercorns add an important kick.

But what about black peppercorns’ other siblings? You may have seen green, white, and pink (or red) peppercorns in the spice rack at the store, but haven’t found an excuse to try them.

Here are eight things you should know about peppercorns — including some reasons to break away from black.


#(clear n1). [%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Black peppercorns are the most common type of peppercorn."] Harvest and production. Pepper plants grow in hot and humid tropical climates. Indonesia and India are the largest producers of peppercorns, with Brazil, Malaysia, and Vietnam close behind. 

The green, black, and white varieties all come from the same plant, Piper nigrum, and start out as small white flower buds. Each color represents a different stage of maturity. Green peppercorns are harvested at the earliest stage of ripeness. Black peppercorns are picked at the midway point of ripeness; when left to dry, they shrivel and take on their signature black color. White peppercorns are picked when the berries are ripest. At this point, the berries are actually red in color, but after days of being soaked in salt water, they shed their red outer shells and reveal their white inner seeds.

Pink peppercorns, however, come from a completely different plant — the Schinus molle, also known as a South American pepper or Peruvian peppertree. The red berries that grow on this plant are sold as pink peppercorns.  

Finally, the grayish-whitish Szechuan peppercorns come from pepper trees called Zanthoxylum simulans._ 

#(clear n2). Flavor differences. Though the general essence and flavor of peppercorns are similar — all are known to leave some heat and a bit of spice on the tongue — there are slight differences between each variety. 

Black is the most pungent of the peppercorns, which could be due to the stage at which it’s picked: halfway ripe, but not so ripe that its heat characteristic begins to turn sweet. Black peppercorns also have a rougher texture that makes them look a little like tiny currants. 

White peppercorns have a much milder aroma that can also be a little musty. A pungency of heat is still present, but not quite as prominently. 

Green peppercorns smell hot and peppery, and deliver a good amount of heat that lingers on the tongue. The outer surface is much smoother in texture than that of the black peppercorn. Straight off the vine, the green variety has a shiny coat; when dried, the berries have a matte finish. 

Pink peppercorns carry a unique potpourri-like smell and deliver a sweeter, fruitier taste. Their texture is much more delicate to the touch, and the outer skins flake off more easily.

In contrast to black, white, green, and pink peppercorns, Szechuan peppercorns are sharp with a side of heat, and emit a lemony citronella aroma. They are generally sold toasted, which masks their citrusy flavor with browned, woody notes. 

#(clear n3). Getting the best flavor. Preground pepper tastes faded and dull. Instead, purchase whole peppercorns. When you're ready to use them, grind or crush them by hand.

#(clear n4). Choosing the right grinder. There are basically three kinds of pepper grinder: manual handheld, electric, or a mortar and pestle.

If a handheld grinder suits you, be sure to purchase a metal or wooden option instead of a plastic one. Plastic eventually wears out, flaking off bits of plastic into your pepper.

Electric spice grinders are very similar, and can be easily interchangeable with propeller-style coffee grinders. The electric grinder gets a good amount of pepper ground with the touch of a button, and can be used if you prefer to have a small dish of freshly ground pepper at the table or readily available in the kitchen. Some users, however, claim that electric grinders can leave a slight metallic taste on ground spices.

The small bowl and mallet known as a mortar and pestle is a favorite among some diehard cooks. Mortars and pestles come in a wide variety of sizes and materials; the marble and stone ones work best for crushing peppercorns. 

#(clear n5). Using whole peppercorns. Peppercorns that are slightly crushed (either by using a mortar and pestle or the side of the blade of a chef's knife) can be useful pressed into steaks prior to grilling, and are commonly used in different types of marinades. 

Try slightly crushed green peppercorns sprinkled atop a finished steak or grilled shrimp for some added color. Add pink peppercorns as a garnish sprinkled on, or even pressed into, soft cheeses.

#(clear n6). Using ground peppercorns. Ground pepper is commonly used alongside salt for seasoning meats, poultry, and fish. For these uses, black and white pepper can be used interchangeably. If you’re serving guests who are sensitive to pepper’s heat, try substituting green peppercorns for a slightly milder taste. 

You might try finishing a salad with freshly ground pink peppercorns instead of the common black. Or add ground pink peppercorns to a tomato sauce or soup to complement the sweetness of the tomatoes. 

Some people prefer to use freshly ground white pepper in white soups and cream sauces, avoiding the black specks usually visible from ground black peppercorns.

Szechuan peppercorns turn up in such popular stir-fries as kung pao chicken. Their bright-but-deep flavor complements meat dishes.

#(clear n7). Storing pepper. Dried peppercorns will keep for one year in an airtight container at room temperature. Fresh green and pink peppercorns are often sold in brine or water and should be kept in the refrigerator. Ground pepper will keep for a mere three months.
#(clear n8). Non-culinary uses for pepper. Did you know that black pepper can be used as a deterrent for insects around the home? Mix half a teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper in a quart of warm water, then spray the solution on house plants to do away with ants, potato bugs, silverfish, and even roaches and moths.


p(bio). Jennifer Fields is a freelance writer planning to leave Portland, Oregon, for new adventures — food and all — in sunny Florida. Follow her journey on her blog, Savor It, and via Twitter @savor.

reference-image, l