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Pepper Primer

Black Peppercorns

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 peppercornsBlack 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!

Black peppercorns, rosemary, basil, and lemon combine with olive oil and a dry white wine to create the perfect chicken marinade in this recipe for Pepper Marinated Barbecued Chicken.

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» Green, white and other peppercorns

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