The Popularity of Pepper
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 pepper is harvested while the berries are still green—before ripening. Sun drying turns them dark brown and wrinkly.
Green 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.
Black peppercorns turn black due to fermentation that takes place after harvest of the spikes and before/during drying. After being threshed, the pepper berries are subjected to either a simple fermentation or a more complex blanching process.
In the traditional, basic method, fermentation is achieved by allowing the harvested green pepper berries to sit at room temperature overnight before beginning the drying process. However, an alternative to the traditional fermentation method is blanching. Blanching deactivates the enzymatic reactions in the pepper and speeds fermentation. It also helps to create a lustrous quality as well as a black/dark brown color with the wrinkles characteristic of dried peppercorns.
The blanching process consists of placing the berries in a mesh container and then submerging them in boiling or near boiling water (80’ C) for a period of time, generally one to ten minutes. In addition to the color/appearance benefits, blanching also washes dirt, surface mold and extraneous matter from the berries. Within about an hour of blanching, the peppercorns will have turned dark brown to black in color.
The next step is the drying process. Traditionally this is carried out by placing the berries on bamboo mats or cement pads to dry in the sun until their moisture content reaches about 10 percent, a process that normally takes about four to five days. Drying may also be done mechanically, via solar dryers, or tray-style dryers, for example. This can reduce the drying time from a number of days down to mere hours. The process of sun drying, which is the preferred drying method in India, leaves much to chance in terms of contamination. Therefore, after drying, the peppercorns must be thoroughly cleaned to remove any extraneous matter. Mechanical techniques have the added benefit of helping to minimize any flavor loss. There is also a history in some areas of drying peppercorns over fire, which imparts a smoky flavor to the end product, although this technique is limited.
Finally, before the black peppercorns are exported, they must be garbled—sorted and graded by size and density. Most often, garbling is a two-step process, the first step consisting of a cleaning operation to remove dust and chaff, while the second step separates the peppercorns according to size and density. Again, this may be done either by a manual sieving process or by mechanical means.
Ideally, sterilization should occur just before the product is placed in a clean container for transport to the customer. Although not necessarily standard, steam sterilization of black pepper is very common. While many different systems are employed, it's important to distinguish the practice of using a steam bath from that of true steam sterilization. In a steam bath, the peppercorns continuously flow through a container where they're washed with steam. This shorter, lower temperature process is not true sterilization, which requires a certain time, pressure and heat to kill micro bacteria.
[black peppercorns] Black pepper comes in a variety of forms, and different uses might dictate which one you choose. Whole peppercorns are what many cooks prefer to buy and grind as needed—or offer in a peppermill at the table—for the freshest aroma and taste. Freshly ground pepper is more pungent than ready-ground, and is especially good in salsa, on pasta, and in soup. Whole peppercorns are also used in pickling, marinades, stocks, blends, pot roasts, some sausages, and pastrami and soups. (They may be tied in a cheesecloth bag or small strainer for easy removal.)
Cracked pepper consists of large pieces of black pepper berries, which give food a burst of flavor. They’re especially good on salads and pasta, or pressed (before cooking) into meat that has been rubbed with oil.
Much like whole and cracked peppercorns, the large grind of coarse pepper retains more volatile aroma and flavor than finer grinds. A dash at a time adds zing to salads, meats, poultry, fish, vegetables and cottage cheese. It’s nice to have at the table, too, for spicing dishes to taste. Medium, fine and extra fine grinds are more familiar shaker varieties often used as table condiments. In general, the finer the particle size, the more immediately the flavors release. A good guideline for novice cooks is to start with 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon of ground black pepper per four servings of a dish.
Types or colors of pepper, as mentioned earlier, are determined by the stage at which the berries are harvested—and are as varied as the forms of pepper. The standard—black pepper, available from Frontier, comes from India, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka. Black pepper is available from Frontier cracked (6 mesh and 10 mesh), coarse grind (20 mesh), medium grind (30 mesh), and fine grind (40 mesh). Whole black peppercorns are available in Tellicherry variety, from India. Our gourmet black peppercorns, smoked, are also from India.
Black pepper partners well with a variety of other zesty seasonings. Discover your favorite combination by experimenting in the kitchen and/or try our blends for surefire success: Black pepper with cayenne, chipotle, garlic, or lemon!
Green peppercorns, which became popular in the U.S. in the 1950s, add an interesting color and a slightly fruity sharpness to foods. Frontier’s green peppercorns, from India, are sold whole. To use, soak the dried peppercorns in hot water for five minutes, then add to meat sauce or ground meat dishes, steaks, pork chops, duck or salad dressings. Or mash with butter to serve on vegetables.
Because it has a subtler, less biting flavor, white pepper can be used a bit more freely than black. Frontier’s white pepper is Muntok pepper, from the Malaysian island of Bangha. It has a deep, rich flavor and aroma and is available whole and ground. In the U.S., we use much more black pepper than white, but European cooks—who like to flavor white sauces and other light-colored dishes with it—prefer white. Fish, chicken and potato dishes are good white pepper candidates. Whole white peppercorns are good for marinades or pickles, and combined with black peppercorns in a mill. Use it a bit more liberally than black pepper: 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon per four servings of a dish, for starters.
Non Piper-Nigrum Peppers
As you've no doubt gathered by now, not all peppers come from the Piper nigrum plant.
Cubeb pepper, for example, comes from the Piper cubeba plant. The dry, somewhat bitter, pungent taste of the cubeb has a woody, pine-like overtone. Ours comes from Indonesia.
Also from Indonesia, long pepper—from the Piper longum plant—is more pungent than black pepper, with a hint of sweetness. You'll find its fire enhancing Ethiopian cuisine and some Berbere blends.
Pink peppercorns are also very decorative when combined with other peppercorns in a clear mill. Pink peppercorns are a gourmet item in French cooking, where they are used for their sweet, piquant peppery flavor and lovely color. These dried, ripe berries come from the South American Schinus terebinthifolius plant, and are completely unrelated to the black pepper plant.
Gourmet Pepper Blends
There are also gourmet blends—intriguing combinations of peppery tastes and eye-catching colors. Blends often combine black, white and green peppercorns. Frontier sells a variety of pepper blends, such as our Exotic Peppercorn Blend—a unique blend of our gourmet cubeb, grains of paradise and black and pink peppercorns.
Experimenting with different pepper varieties inspires a new appreciation of this everyday spice. Some 4,000 years ago, black pepper was carried in caravans half way around the world over treacherous terrain. Today’s cooks can readily find it for pennies an ounce, in various grinds and colors. Start your quest today for your favorite new ways to pepper your life with these intriguing flavors!