magnify Click image to view more.

Perfect Your Pepper Power

Elizabeth Schneider / October 1992

Which Statements are true, which false? 1. Black peppercorns—such as Tellicherry, Lampong, Malabar—all come from the same plant as black. 2. Green peppercorns come form the same plant as black. 3. White peppercorns come from the same. 4. Pink peppercorns come from the same. 5. Sichuan peppercorns come from the same. 6. Japanese pepper (sansho) comes from the same.

Statements 1, 2, and 3 are true: Piper nigrum, true pepper, produces all types of black, green and white peppercorns. Like coffee, the vast differences in aroma and flavor—as well as color, in the case of peppercorns—are determined by where and how the pepper is grown at which stage it is harvested, how it is cleaned and processed, how it is stored, and how coarse or fine the grind.

Statements 4, 5, and 6 are false: Pink peppercorns are in no way related to Japanese pepper, although they are closely related to each other.

Reconsider familiar pepper types: Do you take advantage of their wide range of perfume and pungency, flavor and heat—or do you simply tae them for granted? Have you explored the less familiar "peppers"?

A comparative tasting my prove surprising and inspiring. If you undertake one, sample all the blacks and white at one time, then the remaining spices separately—to keep from getting tongue-tied. Warm hard-cooked egg works well as a tasting base to release aromas and counteract heat, as does warm rice.

Black pepper is the world's most popular spice, cultivated throughout the tropics—although the vine is native to the Malabar Coast of India. Its small clustered berries are picked green, fermented briefly, then sundried. The outer shells turn brown-black, whiles the interior remains pale. High-quality pepper is named for the area in which it is grown or the port from which it is traditionally shipped.

Pepper (white and black) is available in grinds defined by the number of openings per linear inch of the sifting screen. The range is from the finest shaker grind (described as 30/60 mesh) to the largest cracked (6/10 mesh), which is about the size of halved peppercorns.

Tellicherry pepper, from India, is considered the most complex, balanced and elegant. "It's the only one that ripens completely before the birds get to it," explains Pamela Penzey-Moog, manager of The Spice House in Milawaukee and a third-generation importer, "so it develops considerable flavor, sugar and size." Its aroma is sweet-spicy and fruity, with hints of ginger and pine; its savor is rich and bold but not aggressive.

Malabar, a more widely produced grade of Indian black pepper, has a bright, spicy, resinous aroma and a rich, complicated flavor. Its balance is less than Telicherry's, becoming quite heated in the mouth.

Lampong is the best mass-produced pepper of Indonesia. Although less perfumed and complex than the Indian, it has balanced heat and pungency, making it useful in dishes that need extra punch.

Sarawak, the primary peppercorn of commerce produced by the former British colony of the same name (now Milaysia), is smallish, light-colored, well-balanced, comparable to the Lampong.

Brazilian pepper (which rarely has its origin indicated) and, to a lesser extent, Thai pepper, are the peppers commonly marketed in the United States. They vary dramatically in quality and tend more toward heat and sharpness than developed aroma—the Thai in particular.

Selection: Unbroken, uniform, debris free, heavy, well-rounded and full-scented black peppercorns are best quality. "Indian pepper is always the finest," declares Penzey-Moog. "It will always have the most robust and complex flavor."

But the aroma of Indian pepper may not be as accessible as others, according to Augie Techeira, manager of Freed, Teller & Freed in San Francisco, spice importers since 1899. He says, "Tellicherry is so subtle that it may be difficult to smell when whole, unlike other peppercorns. It may not be aromatic until cracked, so break a few. And stay away from the Brazilian peppers, which have significant quality control problems."

Penzey-Moog warns that "pepper-corns grown in countries other than India, Indonesia or Malaysia may be lightly coated with vegetable oil to give them uniform darkness. Examine them to be sure they show no hint of a sheen, but rather a slight brown-red greenish cast."

White pepper is produced from the same peppercorns as black, but have ripened more fully and are processed as follows: The peppercorns are water-soaked until their dark outer shells soften and loosen for easy removal; then the resulting pale peppercorns are sun-dried, like the black. White is the pepper of choice in much of Europe and parts of the Orient. Its aroma tends toward the earthy, rather than floral-spicy of fine black, and has less heat and pungency. Although cultivated in several areas, the white pepper of Muntok, off the southwest coast of Sumatra, is considered the fines, and is usually the only white pepper to bear a name of origin.

Selection: Choosing the finest and freshest is particularly important for white pepper—which can taste like wet cardboard when old. "The best Muntok has a uniform creamy color and is very large, heavy and smooth," says Penzey-Moog, who rejects Brazilian white, "which usually looks brown, smells musty, dirty and has an off taste."

Green peppercorns are the same Piper nigrum berries, picked when green, then mechanically dehydrated, freeze-dried or liquid-packed. Their place of origin is rarely specified. Processing methods yield varied results, but all products share a certain nose-clearing sharpness and a "green" herbal taste.

Freeze-dried, pistachio-green peppercorns are featherweight and paper-thin. Their aroma is fresh, peppery a bit pickled and thin; their flavor, sharp, hot and bitter. Many contain salt and sulfites. Soak briefly in water or wine to mellow, if desired.

Dehyrdated, olive-green peppercorns are puckery-skinned and slightly heavier than freeze-dried, so they can be ground in a mill. Their aroma is fresh light and peppery; their flavor, slightly bitter and sharp—but less so than freeze-dried.

Brined or vinegar-packed peppercorns resemble small hard capers. At their best, they taste sharp, pickled and muddy. Rinse for most uses.

Selection: Choose whole, full and clean freeze-dried or dehydrated peppercorns in clear containers, whether glass or plastic. For brine- or vinegar- packs, look for small uniform berries in clear liquid that are tightly packed and carefully sealed. Those imported from France or Madagascar are usually well-balanced, not harsh.

Pink (rose) pepper, also called baies roses or poivre rose, is not related to true pepper (which does turn pink during maturation, but is not commercially available in that form). The brittle, thin, deep-rose shell encloses a seed that tastes sweet, warm and pepper like—but not piquant.

Pink peppercorns arrived with nouvelle cuisine and have been alternately deemed toxic and edible by the USDA (and opinionated foodies), their legality finalized in 1985. However, they do cause allergic reactions in some people, as do mangoes and cashews—and poison ivy!—which all belong to the same family.

Selection: "As I understand it," says Penzey-Moog, "pink peppercorns now come from several areas, but the best (for me, I've never been a fan of that spicy watermelon-candy flavor) grow on the island of Réunion, off Madagascar, once the only commercial source." Choose unbroken, deep-colored pink peppercorns in clear containers.

Sichuan (Szechuan) Pepper, also called fagara, anise pepper of Chinese pepper, is not related to true pepper (which the Chinese call Barbarian pepper) either the botanically, by appearance or taste. Sampled straight, it taste bitter and numbing, but not biting or hot. Its pronounced aroma suggests menthol, eucalyptus, cedar—even oil pain—but becomes surprisingly appealing in combination.

"In the North of China," explains Barbara Tropp, chef/owner of China Moon Cafe in San Francisco and author of the China Moon Cookbook, (Workman, 1992) "peppercorns are typically heated in oil, often with other spice, which are strained out, leaving a perfumed seasoning. The cantonese toast Sichuan peppercorns with salt, which absorbs the oils, the grind them to make a dipping salt." As an afterthought, she adds, "They also functioned as Tang dynasty moth balls. They do keep away bugs."

Selection: Do not purchase this spice in bulk from an unfamiliar source, as it seems to harbor more twigs, stones, seeds and bits of foreign matter than any other. It also develops a skunky smell if improperly stored. Tropp warns that the seeds which emerge from the split, rust-colored hulls are bitter. Good-quality peppercorns have few or none. "But even imperfect Sichuan pepper works for seasoning vinegar or oil," she advises. [Note: I have recently seen bottles labeled "Sichuan peppercorns" that are, in fact, white peppercorns. This may have been a onetime error, but keep an eye out in case it's a scam.]

Japanese pepper or sansho, another non-pepper, is cited in some culinary references as the Japanese name for Sichuan pepper, but this is not true. The species of prickly ash from which both came are closely related, but one taste will reveal that they are not the same. Sansho has a fairly soft, lemon/pine/mint scent and a persistent, lightly bitter flavor that holds no heat, but may numb slightly. Available only in ground form, it can taste citrusy and flowery or acrid and dusty. As the spice is not sold whole, and bottles and tins are sealed, I have no selection advice.

Storing Peppercorns (All Kinds)
Whole peppercorns stored in any tight container out of direct light and dampness will last indefinitely according to Penzey-Moog. Once ground, pepper deteriorates quite rapidly: the finest grind lasts for only a few months; the large, cracked up to a year. Storage in the cooler is best, but lacking space, any spot away from heat and moisture will do. "Powdered white pepper," she cautions, "must be stored in glass, because it can penetrate plastic."

Twists of the Pepper Mill
• Combine black, white and pink peppercorns with coriander seeds in a mill grind over thinly sliced smoked meat or fish, or sweet vegetables, such as corn, winter squash, cooked onions, sweet potatoes.

• Peppercorns add depth to breads and pastries, sweet and savory—brioche, cornsticks, focaccia, muffins, tart shells, fruit and vegetable quick breads (such as pumpkin or zucchini), carrot or lemon cake, biscotti, wine biscuits, nut cookies.

• "You get the biggest flavor if you crack and hull the pepper yourself, which diminishes the heat and releases the volatile oils," says Kevin Taylor, chef/owner of Zenith American Grill in Denver. He runs black peppercorns through a coffee mill set at its coarsest grind, the sieves out the dark hulls that detach from the barely cracked peppercorns. "For game and beef, this is particularly useful," he explains, "because when you sear or grill the peppered meat, you avoid the usual burning caused by the hulls.

• "For baking, I prefer the processed white pepper," taylor continues, " which is more subtle in flourless chocolate cake, lemon and pepper focaccia, spicy cakes and apple muffins, for example."

• Taylor steeps pink peppercorns in white wine for beurre blanc. For dessert, he combines them in a light syrup with berries, which he poaches briefly; this is poured over ice cream and topped with a basil julienne.

• For a lively Bourbon sauce, Taylor reduces Jack Daniel's and green peppercorns, adds reduced veal stock and serves with veal chops.

• Terrance Brennan, executive chef/co-owner of Prix Fixe and chef of Steak Frites, both in New York City, coats foi gras slices with medium-grind black pepper, then sautés; sprinkles pink peppercorns on steak tartare seasons a salsa of pineapple, mango, red onion, red bell pepper, orange and lime juices, olive oil with a big dose of pink and black coarsely ground pepper instead of chile peppers; sprinkles black pepper over an orange filled with basil sorbet; tops vanilla ice cream with a fine dusting or pink, white and black.

• Richard Sax, New York-based food writer and cookbook author, updates pepper's role in Medieval sweets—such as gingerbread—and incorporates it in pumpkin pie and similar spicy desserts. "I also find that a touch in blueberry pie sharpens and deepens the blueberry flavor—an idea from my friend [chef] Sandy Gluck," he says. "And a touch of black and white pepper on chilled melon with a squeeze of lime adds a new dimension."

• Marybeth Boller, chef de cuisine at Restaurant Lafayette in New York City, imbues shelled lobster with a subtle sweet-spiciness by roasting it over peppercorns and star anise, a technique adapted by Le Gavroche in London.

• Wine educator Barbara Land, lecturer at the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University and co-owner of Coyote Loco in Ithaca, New York, recommends these general guidelines for wine service with highly peppery dishes, "Stay clear of high-alcohol wines, which increases the feeling of heat. Tannin does the same, so avoid the big Cabernets and Bordeaux. Instead, go with California Pinot Noir or Beaujolais for red. For numbing peppers, well-chilled, off-dry Riesling from California or New York State works well, as do some fruity sparkling wines, such as those made from Chenin Blanc grapes, or blancs de noirs, such as Domaine Chandon.