You might be surprised, but pepper is the most traded and most popular spice in the world. Peppercorns are the fruit (aka drupes) of the tropical vine, Piper Nigrum. When the fruit is ripe, it turns red, but sometimes it’s picked and processed before it’s ripe which then changes the pepper.
The flavor profile of peppercorns can change like wine, depending on where the pepper is grown, when it is picked, and how it is processed. Also like wine, descriptions of the peppercorn’s favor can vary widely; floral, cedar, fruity, smoky, citrus and licorice are commonly used. Vietnam may be the world’s largest producer of pepper but the most coveted peppercorns hail from Telicherry, in India, where the spice originates.
What does the color of the pepper tell you about it?
Black peppercorns are the mature fruit of the pepper vine, picked when between green and yellow in color, and then cooked and dried. The flavor is aromatic and spicy with some heat. Black pepper is grown in India, Vietnam, Cambodia, Cameroon, and Indonesia as well as small production in other parts of the world.
Green peppercorns are most often freeze dried when the fruit is fresh is fresh to keep their color. They are also sometimes pickled or brined. Fresh green peppercorns are often used in Thai cuisine but are highly perishable. Most freeze dried green peppercorns come from Brazil. Their flavor is mild and aromatic.
White Peppercorns are the seed of the peppercorn with the outer husk removed. The flavor is earthier than black peppercorns. White pepper is often used to season dishes where the coloring of black pepper would stand out too much (potatoes, soups, light sauces, etc.). Most common white pepper is grown in Indonesia and Malaysia.
Pink Peppercorns are the dried berry of a different plant, the Brazilian or Peruvian pepper tree. The flavor is similar to black peppercorns but not as acidic and slightly fruity. Most pink peppercorns come from South American.
Red Peppercorns are much less common than pink, and the two are often confused. True red peppercorns are rarely imported into the US, so if you see a recipe with “red” peppercorns, it is most likely “pink” they require. These are the same berry as the black peppercorn, allowed to ripen to a red color and then processed (freeze dried or brined) much like a green peppercorn.
Szechuan Peppercorns are not a true pepper, but rather the husk of the seed of the Prickly Ash tree (Zanthoxylum simulans)native to China. The heat from them is moderate but eating them can cause a tingling sensation on the tongue and lips.
Whole peppercorns will stay fresh in an airtight opaque container at room temperature for up to a year. Ground pepper only stays fresh for a few months so for the freshest flavor buy your peppercorns whole and find a good peppermill for your table.
Coming up next… the most classic dish to use whole peppercorns, Steak Au Poivre.