Salt & pepper. Trips off the tongue, doesn’t it? They’re so often linked we don’t pay much attention to just the pepper portion of this seasoning duo. Lots of us use pepper as an adjunct to salt without really thinking about it.
Common and reasonably priced now, piper nigrum has a long history as a prized spice. In addition to the way its pungent flavor enhances the taste of food, pepper aids in digestion, contains some vitamins and minerals, and supposedly has antioxidant and antibacterial effects as well. Finding its way into most savory dishes and even some desserts, it’s likely the most widely used spice in the world.
Black pepper, white pepper, green pepper, pink . . . are they all the same? Yes, all but the last are from the same plant. The difference is that the berries are picked at various stages of maturity. Black peppercorns are picked green and unripe, and dried until they become black and wrinkled. White peppercorns are picked ripe when yellow or red, then dried, soaked and cleaned, which removes the black outer skin and flesh.
Dried green peppercorns can be ground in a mill like any other. They’re also sold in brine, and, rarely, fresh. The brined ones should be rinsed well or they’ll be too hot. I used them once in a dish called Beef Madagascar, which called for 3 teaspoons of peppercorns and 2 teaspoons of their liquid . . . once was enough. They overpowered everything.
Pink peppercorns aren’t true peppercorns, although they look a lot like them. Spicy, they also add a touch of sweetness to food. They’re sold freeze-dried in small jars, both because they’re expensive, and because used in large amounts, they’re suspected of being toxic.
Perhaps you’ve seen jars labeled Malabar, Madagascar, or Tellicherry pepper. This simply refers to the region where it was grown. Penzeys Spices sells Whole Special Extra Bold® Indian Black peppercorns, said to be the world’s best, as well as Tellicherry and Malabar, which are more widely available and cheaper. I’ve never had a chance to try the top of the line, and in fact have wondered, how does one do a pepper tasting? Wouldn’t that be a real challenge to your taste buds? I guess you’d have to taste the pepper on a neutral or bland food like mashed potatoes.
How do they taste? I think you have to try them for yourself, although Penzey’s describes white pepper as having a “rich, winey, somewhat hot flavor.” White pepper is milder than black, if that helps.
I’m always surprised at how many folks use pre-ground pepper. If I worked in a high volume kitchen, I might consider using it pre-ground for convenience. All my peppermills are manual, and grinding a lot of pepper takes awhile; it can also be hard on your hands if you have arthritis or other physical limitations. But most home kitchens don’t go through that much pepper, and it doesn’t keep well – about three months is the limit before it begins losing its pungency. Whole peppercorns keep almost indefinitely, and pepper is best freshly ground, so I recommend everyone have a peppermill.
In fact, I recommend everyone have at least two peppermills, one in the kitchen and one in the dining room. That way it’s always handy when you need it. Murphy’s Law means that the cook’s peppermill will be empty or almost empty when there’s a time crunch in the kitchen, so make that one larger. Having two also means not having to hunt for it when you need it.
You might also want to invest in a mill for white pepper. Western cooks prefer it for dishes where black specks will detract from the appearance of a dish – in a white veal or chicken stew, for example, or in a light-colored sauce like béchamel or hollandaise. Cooks in Southeast Asia use coarsely ground white pepper to season meats before grilling or stir-frying. But whether you use black or white pepper, or both, please buy it whole and grind it just before using. It’s best that way.