Salt may get the most attention in the world of basic seasonings. But black pepper has the sexy backstory.
Ancient Romans brought boatloads of gold to India, the pepper plant’s native home, in order to spice up their food, and pepper was a staple on the 4,000-mile Silk Road trade route from China to Europe.
Today, peppercorns of various colors are available to the home cook...with no arduous trek (or purse full of gold) required.
What Are Peppercorns, Exactly?
Pepper starts out as fruit that grows in grape-like clusters on the Piper nigrum vine (which, in case you were wondering, is not related to the Western Hemisphere’s chili pepper). These fruits dry down to the wrinkly little peppercorns sitting on your store shelf.
True peppercorns include:
- Black: fruits that have been picked slightly underripe, then boiled and dried. Tellicherry, the most highly regarded, and Indian Malabar are among the most common varieties.
- Green: also picked underripe, but then processed to keep their green color before being either dried or pickled in brine.
- White: fruits that are allowed to fully ripen before having their outer hulls stripped off before drying; varieties include Muntok and Sarawak.
- Red: mature fruits with the hulls left on; they are difficult to find in the US (and expensive when you do spot them).
Other plants produce fruits that are used in a manner similar to those from P. nigrum. They include:
- Pink peppercorns: dried berries of an evergreen tree, Schinus molle, native to the Peruvian Andes.
- Sichuan peppercorns: outer dried husks of berries taken from plants in the citrus family, which gives them a distinctive aroma; they are prized in China’s Sichuan cuisine as well as Nepali and Tibetan cooking.
- Long pepper: a cylindrical flower spike taken from Piper longum, a plant native to Indonesia; it’s hotter than black pepper, with earthy undertones.
Peppercorns in the Kitchen
The first rule of pepper usage: Never buy the powdered stuff.
Buy whole peppercorns in fairly small amounts and grind them yourself in a peppermill or spice grinder. If your pepper comes in a plastic packet, transfer the contents to a covered glass jar. (If you find peppercorns in jars with dust on the lids, run in the opposite direction.) Store in a cool, dark place.
For the best flavor, use fresh pepper at the table or add it at the end of the cooking process. Here are a few suggestions:
- Add cracked pepper and Parmesan cheese to pasta dishes.
- Use pepper as a crust for steaks, either tuna or beef, as in the classic French dish Steak au Poivre.
- Mix softened cream cheese with herbs and spices, form into a fall, and roll the ball in cracked peppercorns.
- Give vinaigrettes and other dressings more punch with pepper.
- Add pepper to the coating for chicken cutlets or in a dry rub for ribs.
- Add pepper to a chai tea spice mix.
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**These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.