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Pepper Primer

Learn about the fascinating array of peppers available -- from black pepper to pink and Sichuan peppercorns.

If we had to select just one spice to flavor our food, pepper, “the master spice,” would be a wise choice. Always the world’s most important spice—at one time worth its weight in gold—pepper accounts for about 35% of the total world trade in spices today. It’s a staple in food manufacturing, and in household kitchens its popularity is rivaled only by its sister seasoning, salt.

Pepper’s status as a popular spice stems from its distinctive taste, aroma and versatility. It peps up almost any dish and is a boon for salt-free diets. Pepper works well in combination with other herbs and spices, too, and is commonly found in blends (like poultry seasoning, curry powders, sausage blends and even an occasional pumpkin pie spice blend). The alkaloids piperine, piperidine and chavicin account for its hot and pungent flavor. Because it stimulates the taste buds and increases gastric secretions, pepper is thought to inspire the appetite.

Pepper’s rich history can be traced through the records of ancient Rome, the Middle Ages, and the logs of early traders and explorers. In 1180, London's Guild of Pepperers was the most important guild of the time. Often equated with money, pepper has been used for taxes, rent, dowries and ransom. When Alaric the Goth besieged Rome, for example, gold, silver, and pepper were demanded as ransom. (The gold and silver were easy enough to come by, but the pepper gave them some trouble.) The value of pepper helped establish water passages to India. Its quest largely defines the history of the spice trade. In fact, procurement of pepper and other spices led to the European efforts to find a sea route to India—and eventually the European discovery and colonization of the Americas.

Black, white and green pepper all comes from the woody tropical plant Piper nigrum. The plant is unrelated to capsicum peppers (like paprika, chili peppers and cayenne peppers) or long peppers (Piper longa). Usually trained to climb supports, the vine grows 25 to 30 feet long. Native to Southwest India and cultivated today in India, Indonesia, Malaysia and China, most peppers are named for their shipping ports (Saigon and Alleppy, for example). There are over 13 types of black pepper grown commercially, but the most popular variety is Indonesian Lampong, a small, earthy-flavored pepper from southern Sumatra. Large Telicherry peppers—from the Malabar coast of India—are softer flavored than some other black peppers; many people consider them to be the highest quality black pepper.

Pepper plants, which need lots of rain, shade and heat, flourish near the equator. They're propagated from seeds or cuttings, and it takes three to four years for the first harvest. Although they're most productive at about eight years, the plants continue to bear for about 25 to 30 years.

Pepper berries grow in long clusters, and turn green, then red, as they ripen. The stage at which they’re harvested (and whether or not they are husked) determines the color of the resulting spice.

black peppercornsBlack pepper is harvested while the berries are still green—before ripening. Sun drying turns them dark brown and wrinkly.

White pepper results when the Piper nigrum berries are picked fully ripe and then husked. The red, outer skin is removed and the greenish-yellow berries are sun-dried to a light gray/tan/white.

green peppercornsGreen peppercorns have been picked, before ripening, from the same plant as black and white peppercorns, but they’re preserved—in brine or with sulfites—before drying. The closer the berries are to full ripeness, the better the flavor and larger the size.

Processing peppercorns involves threshing, fermentation, drying, garbling, and sterilization. Once harvested, the berries must be removed from the spikes, a process that can be done manually or mechanically. Small-scale producers usually employ a system by which the spikes are placed on concrete floors or bamboo mats and then threshed by trampling underfoot. Mechanical threshing consists of a rotating drum with aluminum blades that separate the green berries from the pepper stalk.

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Quick Links

» Pepper primer
» Black peppercorns
» Green, white and other peppercorns

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