The Science of Peppercorns

"Chefs don't use white pepper just to avoid spoiling the whiteness of pommes puree or bechamel. It has a more peppery aroma, with sharpness and sweetness, too."Yotam Ottolenghi

Black pepper, green pepper, pink pepper, red pepper...what's the difference?

Black pepper is the most popular spice in the world. It comes from the berries of a climbing vine plant (piper nigrum) that's native to India and Indonesia. Like hot chile peppers, which are also botanical fruits, peppercorns contain chemicals that irritate tissues in the mouth and nose, triggering a pain reaction that we experience as a sensation of burning. In chile peppers, the heat-producing compound is capsaicin. In peppercorns, it is piperine. Black peppercorns get their citrusy, pine-like and woody aromas from various other flavor compounds, including limonene, pinene, caryophyllene, and sabinene. These flavors are so popular and so agreeable with so many foods that black pepper goes with just about everything—even ice cream!

Green peppercorns are the immature berries of the piper nigrum plant and are usually packed in brine or freeze-dried. White peppercorns are mature peppercorns that are skinned and dried. Chefs often use white peppercorns to flavor dishes that are white in color (such as mashed potatoes) but also because they have a more focused peppery taste. Black peppercorns are by far the most popular type around the world. They are slightly underripe berries that turn dark after drying. Vietnam leads the world in black pepper production but India and Indonesia produce more highly prized types. Tellicherry from India and Lampong from Indonesia are considered the finest types of black pepper. Lampong peppercorns tend to be smaller than Tellicherry, a name that refers to the large size of Indian Tellicherry peppercorns (at least 4.2mm diameter). The size matters, as larger peppercorns contain more aromatic compounds, making Tellicherry peppercorns taste more complex and not just "peppery." Tellicherry also refers to the city of Tellicherry (Thalassery), a commercial hub of the international spice trade. Malabar black pepper also comes from India's Malabar coast in Kerala, but these peppercorns are smaller in size and not as highly valued as Tellicherry. Parameswaran’s pepper is a mixture of high-quality Panniyor and Karimunda varieties of piper nigrum that delivers a clean pepper aroma and heat. You can also get Parameswaran’s as white peppercorns, which have been soaked to remove the outer black husk, giving Parameswaran’s white pepper a less complex aroma but more pointed heat.

Some related peppers that have a similar taste but come from different plants include cubeb, grains of paradise, long pepper, pink peppercorns, selim kili pepper, Sichuan pepper, and Tasmanian pepper.

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Cubeb

Also known as Java pepper and tailed pepper. Native to Indonesia, these dried grey-black berries (piper cubeba) are slightly longer than true black peppercorns (piper nigrum) and retain a “tail,” which is the stem of the berries. When crushed, cubeb emits aromas of camphor, mint, and allspice and tastes pleasantly hot on the tongue. In the first century, during the T’ang dynasty, Chinese doctors used cubeb to restore appetite and rid the body of “devil vapors,” according to Edward H. Schafer in his book The Golden Peaches of Samarkand: A Study of T’ang Exotics. Cubeb pepper is used to season many Moroccan pastries, West African stews, and Indonesian curries.

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Grains of Paradise

Also known as alligator pepper, Guinea pepper (or grains), and melegueta pepper. These are the pungent, aromatic seeds of a West African reed-like herb. Still used widely in Africa, the seeds were popular in Europe during the Middle Ages. They often show up in Tunisian stews.

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Long Pepper

Also known as Indian, Indonesian and Java Long Pepper, and Pippali. Resembling tiny, elongated grey-black pine cones, long pepper (piper longum) is closely related to black pepper (piper nigrum) but with more citrus aromas and simple searing heat. The aromas of long pepper complement a variety of dishes in Southeast Asian cooking and are often added to Indian pickles.

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Pink Peppercorns

This colorful spice is not from the pepper (piper nigrum) plant. These are the pink or red berries of schinus trees that are sold as pink peppercorns. You may see them in blends of true black, white and green peppercorns to add color, but their outer husks tend to clog up peppermills, so it's best to grind pink peppercorns in a mortar and pestle or an electric spice grinder if you need a lot. Pink peppercorns are frequently used to season Mediterranean fish recipes, and their bright, pine-like taste works wonders on game meats as well.

True pink peppercorns are the ripe red fruit of piper nigrum vines, the same plant that produces black, white, and green peppercorns. They are often brined as for green peppercorns.

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Selim Kili Pepper

Also known as African pepper, Ethiopian pepper, grains of selim, Guinea pepper and kimba pepper. These are the slender, elongated dried pods of an African bush with aromas of eucalyptus and nutmeg in the seedpods and slightly bitter heat in the seeds. Selim kili pepper is frequently used in Nigerian stews such as goat stew.

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Sichuan Pepper

Also known as flower pepper, Japanese pepper, sansho pepper, and Szechwan pepper. This is the dried berry of the prickly ash tree with a peppery taste, citrus aroma, and distinctive lingering fizzy sensation on tongue. When ground, the dried berries are known as sansho in Japanese cooking. Sichuan pepper is a common addition to Chinese five-spice powder and the Japanese spice blend called shichimi togarashi. It works wonders with rich and fatty pork and duck dishes. Try adding it along with the other spices in your favorite pork rub.

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Tasmanian Pepper

Also known as mountain pepper. The plump, purple-black dried berries of this native Australian bush are soft enough to split by hand, releasing complex hibiscus and cardamom aromas. The pleasant, lingering pungency on the tongue is attributed to a flavor compound known as polygodial. A related pepper, Dorrigo pepper, contains the same compound but tastes less complex. Tasmanian pepper became associated with Cornish cuisine after its cultivation in Cornwall, England.

peppercorn melange

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