Today, Americans consume about 38 million pounds of pepper every year.
Historians speculate that pepper changed the course of European history. These green, black and white berries of the Piper Nigrum tree are potent pellets that enhance rather than mask the flavor of food. Few spices can match pepper’s historical worth. Like a precious gemstone, pepper was valued throughout much of history. Often, official bribes were paid in pepper. Serfs could buy their freedom for one pound of pepper. People paid their rent in pepper. It took an ounce of gold to purchase an ounce of pepper.
Ancient medical texts allude to pepper’s use for fevers, cholera, jaundice, arthritis, ringworm and toothaches. Lust for pepper drove Europeans to find trade routes to the East, which should come as no surprise to anyone who cooks. Europe has loved them for a long time - ever since the natives of Madagascar introduced them to the French. In the middle Ages, Venice was the pepper capital of the world, while Europe was consuming 6.6 million pounds of the spice annually – nothing to sneeze at!
Yet, the world’s most common spice is sadly misunderstood. Pepper helps alleviate indigestion, nausea and constipation. Americans consume about four ounces per person per year, which makes us the #1 market for the spice today. Used wisely, pepper can turn the ordinary into the distinct; in fact, pepper changes everything, but in the kitchen, as in life, pure knowledge is not enough. Wisdom comes from experience. So what do we know about pepper?
Piper nigrum is grown in hot, wet tropical climates, including Brazil, India, Malaysia and Indonesia. The plant has aerial roots, which cause it to cling to neighboring trees for support and tower to a height that can top 30 feet. The leaves are glossy in appearance and about six inches long. Small white flowers bloom on hanging spikes with about 50 blossoms each and are accompanied by spherical seeds about five millimeters in diameter. These seeds are the fruit of the vine. Pepper vines begin bearing fruit after two to five years. The small grains appear green in color at first and turn a yellowish red as they ripen. How and when the pepper berries are harvested and processed determines the fate of the peppercorns; black, white or green.
Like wine grapes, pepper grows on vines and needs lots of sun and rain. It’s believed to be native to India but is now cultivated in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Indonesia, and other tropical countries. Flavor differences stem from the fact that the riper the peppercorns are when picked, the hotter they will be. Green peppercorns, which are the mildest, are picked before they’re ripe, then freeze-dried, air-dried, or pickled. The white ones, which are the hottest, stay on the vine until they’re almost completely ripe. Black pepper’s flavor is somewhere in between. And the pink or rose colored kind, though not technically a pepper, has a pepper like flavor but is more acidic, with a sweet aftertaste.
Pepper alone makes up 25% of the world’s trade in spices. Black pepper is the world’s most popular spice, cultivated throughout the tropics – although the vine is native to the Malabar Coast of India. Pepper does not command the price it once did (for centuries, a pound was worth its weight in gold), but the spice is still precious in a culinary way. No pepper is better than that which from the Indian State Rorald. It was in the town of Tellicherry that the British set up a spice depot in 1683, and forged a link between pepper and Tellicherry that exists today. Tellicherry is a sprawling Venice Leaveno with the lushness of tropical greenery known for its pepper and jumbo prawn. Like olive oil, the vast differences in aroma/flavor/color, are determined by many variables: where and how the pepper is grown, at which stage it is harvested, how it is cleaned, processed, and stored, and finally ground from coarse (6/10 mesh) to fine (30/60 mesh). Let us talk to each color separately.
Black pepper is the world’s most popular spice, cultivated throughout the tropics – although the vine is native to the Malabar coast of India. The small, well-rounded berries grow in the lush, lovely Cardamon hills of Southwest India, so that Cochin (now called Kochi) became, at the time, one of the world’s greatest ports. The other black peppercorn which is highly regarded are the larger, more pungent, and more expensive “Tellicherry” (a type of malavar) which is dark brown, white, too, comes from India. Lanpong from Indonesia is pungent, slightly more subtle is Sarawak, from Malaysia.
Black peppercorns are produced from berries left on the vine until they turn red, picked, fermented briefly, then sun-dried, accounting for its slightly withered and demented look. Peppercorns are scalded in water, then allowed to dry, and become hard, wrinkled, and black. The fermentation is what delivers the flavor that makes peppercorns the world’s most imported spice. The outer shells turn brown-black, while the interior remains pale. Its intensity also fades in cooking - but not nearly as much as green peppercorns - and by salting and peppering each ingredient in a dish, you can retain its dark lustiness. High quality pepper is named for the area in which it is grown, or the port from which it is traded. Black peppercorns have a penetrating odor, and biting flavor. When cooked, black peppercorns grow tender and mild – pleasantly chewy, and almost soft as rice – with no burning heat.
There are flavor differences even among black peppercorns. Black pepper comes from all over the world. Tellicherry from India and Lampong from Indonesia are considered the best. Brazil makes some, but it’s not as high quality. A lot of spice merchants blend these all together, which is unfortunate.
Black peppercorns are sun dried green peppercorn berries and come in a variety of types. Singapore black peppercorns are characterized by their large aromatic black berries, which are smoke-dried over an herb fire. Alleppey and Tellicherry black peppercorns are both Indian berries with a clean and less pungent flavor than other black peppercorns.
Whole black peppercorns are used in soups, stews, sauces and marinades and also in the manufacture of pickles, meats, sausages, dressings and baked goods. Try different grind levels for textural variations in desserts, coarsely crushed peppercorn are green on a roast or steak.
Our Napoleon green peppercorns are the same piper nigrum berries as black/white, but picked when green (unripe), then freeze-dried, and air-dried, or mechanically dehydrated, then packed in brine. They come both dried and brined. They are uniform in size, debris-free, well rounded, and full-scented. Brined or vinegar-packed peppercorns resemble small, hard capers. Green peppercorns have a warm, woody smell, and a mild taste. At their best, they taste zesty, brisk and mild; at their worst, they taste sharp, pickled, and muddy. Ours share a certain nose-clearing sharpness and a green herbal taste, with a delicate mellowness in its peppery piquancy. Green peppercorns are the mildest incarnation of the unripe fruit - so mild, the vinegar used in pickling them tends to overwhelm their flavor. Whole peppercorns stored in any tight container will last indefinitely, when kept out of direct light/dampness. Rinse for most uses. Since the flavor of green peppercorns fades quickly, they must be added late in the cooking process, as close to serving as possible. Use green peppercorns on pepper steaks, sauces, and flavor Thai dishes or avocado soup. Because green pepper has a fresh, mild flavor, you can use it in quantity without overpowering a dish. Too, they work especially well with seafood and poultry. Our green peppercorns should be used on steaks, and to flavor Thai dishes, or avocado soup.
Pink peppercorns (Schinus) were founded as a product for trade in 1992. These trees grow wild on the whole coastal region of Brazil, as part of the Brazilian native vegetation. The state of Espirito Santo is the largest and first state to export the pink peppercorn throughout the world. Pink peppercorns are dried berries from a different plant, and splash color on dishes.
Pink peppercorns are commonly used in cuisines around the world, and they have become very trendy in all fine food flavors. Pink peppercorns have a sweet and mild taste, are very aromatic, and not pungent like the regular ripe pepper fruits. They are named after their color (red tone) and shape, not because of the flavor, which is exotic rather than pungent. Try the rose-colored variety (which is not a true peppercorn) as a nice complement to pork, red-wine sauces, seafood, and vegetables. It can even be used in desserts, such as a topping for a chocolate cookie made with mascarpone cheese.
Pink peppercorns, botanically speaking, are not peppercorns at all. Frankly, we feel about pink much like white - they’re kind of pretty, but dumb. All too often, pink peppercorns are deployed strictly for appearances. They do have a purpose, though, in foods that have a hint of brininess, as fresh crabmeat, in which you can taste their delicate fruit, and pine-like undertones. However, pink’s flavor fades as quickly as that of green peppercorns, and unless you include them in a mixture with other pepper, it is pretty useless to serve pinks freshly ground on the table.
In France, the United States and Britain, they became a fashionable ingredient in the late ‘80s, until they were rumored to be dangerous to eat (they’re mildly toxic in large quantities). These berries are not from the pepper plant at all, but the berry of a South American relative of poison ivy. The flavor is slightly less piquant than that of black pepper and their culinary value is primarily visual.
Pink peppercorns are also used for cosmetological, pharmacological, and perfumery sources because of its photochemical analysis of the Brazilian peppertree that reveals that the plant contains tannins, alkaloids, flavodoids, steroidal saponins, sterols, terpenes, gums, resins, and a large amount of essential oil. The fruit can contain up to 5% essential oil, and the leaves can contain up to 2% essential oil. Pink peppercorns are a nice compliment to pork in red wine sauce.
White peppercorns come from the same pepper plant as black and green, but picked in a less-ripened state. The ripe red berries of the plant are soaked in water for 7 days after harvesting to remove the red skin and reveal the white corns inside, which are then dried. White pepper has a mild flavor and is often preferred over black for cooking because it does not darken delicate sauces. White pepper, more often used in actual cooking of foods because of the milder flavor, is used in white sauces, soups, potatoes and various spreads. It is also used in beverages. It will add head (or spiciness), but it won’t make the sauce pungent. One of the most flavorful white peppers is muntok, from the island of Bangka in the East Indies.
Mixing black and white peppercorns in a spice grinder is a traditional practice the French call mignonette pepper. Finely ground mignonette is sometimes called grey pepper.
A comparative test of peppercorns can prove surprising and inspiring. Sample all at one time… separately – do not mix peppers for the same reason you would not mix red and white wine in the same glass. The rainbow blends look great in an acrylic peppermill with white, black, green, and rose peppercorns all mixed, sometimes including allspice. But the blending is a kind of compromise – the more delicate flavors of rose and green are overpowered by the white and black. To keep from getting tongue-tied when tasting, sample with warm hard-cooked eggs or rice…both release aroma, and counteract heat.
The pungent characteristics of pepper are contained in the oleoresin and include the alkaloids piperine, chavicine and peperdine. The taste is hot and penetrating. Experts say consumers should buy whole peppercorns because they retain flavor much longer than ground pepper. Ground pepper that has been sitting on the shelf gave up 80 percent of its flavor years ago. The outer shell of the peppercorn is the barrier that keeps everything fresh. Once you break that barrier, the flavor dissipates quickly. Some people can notice a difference in the flavor within 30 minutes of when the pepper’s been cracked.
Folks ask me if you should mix peppers – and the answer is no….for the same reason you do not mix red/white wine in the same glass.
If you want a rainbow of blends – white/black/green/rose – some people call this allspice. They look great in an acrylic mill but the blending is kind of compromise. The more delicate flavor of green/rose is overpowered by the black/white.
The riper the peppercorns when picked, the hotter they will be.