The Ultimate Guide To Pepper
Pepper (Piper nigrum) is still the most traded spice in the world. It’s a staple in food manufacturing and in household kitchens. Its culinary popularity is rivaled only by its sister seasoning, salt. Pepper’s status stems from its distinctive taste, aroma and versatility. It peps up almost any dish. Because it combines well with other spices, it’s commonly found in blends, too—poultry seasoning, curry powders, sausage blends and even some pumpkin pie spice blends.
A quick look at Frontier Co-op’s pepper offerings illustrates that pepper comes in many varieties—different colors, grinds and (in the case of peppercorns) blends. In addition, there are similarly used seasonings going under the name “pepper,” even though they are unrelated to Piper nigrum, such as pink and Sichuan peppercorns.
Pepper is a key to flavorful cooking—whether it’s coarse-grind black pepper adding zing to your steak, fine-grind white pepper subtly flavoring your béchamel sauce, or green peppercorns giving its distinctive herbaceous touch to a French, Creole or Thai recipe.
Find Your Grind
Pepper comes in a variety of grinds. Grinds indicate how finely the dried berries, or peppercorns, of the pepper plant are broken down. In general, the larger the pieces or particles of the berries, the longer the pepper retains its flavor in storage. For this reason, most chefs prefer to grind whole peppercorns, which retain flavor best, right before use.
Whole peppercorns offer the freshest aroma and taste. Grind as needed in cooking or offer in a peppermill at the table. Freshly ground pepper is more flavorful than pepper sold ground, enhancing the taste of any dish where pepper is used. Whole peppercorns are also used without grinding in pickling, marinades, stocks, blends, pot roasts 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 provide a burst of pepper flavor with each bite of food. Cracked pepper is especially good on salads and pasta, salsa and soup, or pressed into raw meat that’s been rubbed with oil before cooking.
Coarse pepper, a large grind, 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
Medium, fine and extra fine grinds are the more familiar shaker varieties used as table condiments and in baking. While these grinds don’t have the same flavor punch of the coarser grinds, they are convenient for seasoning to taste and blend quickly and smoothly into food.
All Types Pepper
Black pepper is harvested before the berries have ripened. Sun drying turns them dark brown and wrinkly. This is the standard ground pepper used for cooking and in shakers. It has a robust and pungent flavor.
Green pepper is known for it's herbaceous and mild flavor. The berries are picked before ripening like black pepper, but they’re specially handled to maintain their unripe qualities. The closer the berries are to full ripeness when picked, the better the flavor and larger the size.
White pepper results when the berries are picked fully ripe and then husked. The red, outer skin is removed, and the greenish-yellow berries are sun-dried, which lightens their color. White pepper has a subtler flavor than black and is often used to flavor white sauces. They have a subtle and less sharp flavor than black.
Pink pepper is a gourmet item in French cooking, where it’s used for its sweet, piquant, peppery flavor and lovely color. The dried, ripe berries, or peppercorns, are decorative when combined with other peppercorns in a clear mill. They come from the South American Schinus terebinthifolius plant.
Sichuan (or Szechuan) pepper offers an unusual, pungent flavor that begins as warm and lemon-like with woodsy overtones and finishes with a surprising numbing effect on the tongue. Its complex and unusual flavor is used to enhance fish, poultry, cheese and vegetables. It comes from the Chinese shrub Zanthoxylum bungeanum.
Peppercorn blends offer the fresh flavor of grinding and a melding of different pepper flavors. You can simply combine two or more types of peppercorns (whole, dried berries) in your grinder for a colorful burst of flavor that’s more complex than simple all-black peppercorns—or use a pre-blended combination of various peppercorns.