Along with salt, pepper is on nearly every table. Historically significant, pepper is the most common spice in use. Nutritionally beneficial, pepper offers a unique flavor and a variety of uses. It is the third most common ingredient used in cooking behind water and salt. There are a variety of peppercorns commonly used and the spice is versatile in all forms. Peppercorns are the seed berries of the Piper nigrum vine, originating on the Malabar coast of India. Said to be discovered more than 4,000 years ago, peppercorns were cultivated as long ago as 1000 B.C.
The pepper berries grow on bushes that are cultivated to heights of about 13 ft. If the berries were allowed to ripen fully, they would turn red; instead, they are harvested when they are green. Harvesting is done without any mechanical equipment. Workers pick the unripened berries and transport them in large wicker baskets to drying platforms. The berries are spread on these large platforms to dry in the sun over a period of about a week and a half. In their dried state, the green berries blacken to become the peppercorns we use in pepper mills.
Alternatively, the pepper berries can be picked just as they begin to turn red. They are plunged into boiling water for approximately 10 minutes, and they turn black or dark brown in an hour. The peppercorns are spread in the sun to dry for three to four days before they are taken to the factory to be ground. This process is quicker than air drying alone but requires the added step of the boiling water bath.
If white pepper is to be produced, the peppercorns are either stored after they have been boiled or they are harvested and packed in large sacks that are then lowered into running streams for seven to 15 days (depending on location). Bacterial action causes the outer husk of each peppercorn, called the pericarp, to break away from the remainder of the peppercorn. The berries are removed from the stream and placed in barrels partially immersed in water; workers trample the berries, much like stomping grapes, to agitate the peppercorns and remove any remaining husks. Some processors now use mechanical methods to grind off the outer coating to produce decorticated pepper, but many exporters prefer the old-fashioned method.
Black and white pepper are processed in the factory by cleaning, grinding, and packaging. Blowers and gravity separators are used to remove dust, dirt clods, bits of twigs and stalk and other impurities from the peppercorns after they are brought in from the field. Sometimes, treatments are used to eliminate bacteria on the cleaned, dry peppercorns.
Grinding consists of using a series of rollers in a process called cold roll milling to crush the peppercorns. Cracked peppercorns are only crushed lightly to bruise the peppercorns and release their flavor.
Further grinding steps crush peppercorns into coarse and fine grinds of pepper that are packaged separately. A sifter sorts the grains by size, and they are conveyed to packaging stations. Packaging varies widely among processors and includes bags, boxes and canisters for large-volume commercial sales and smaller jars, cans and mills for home use. Packing may also include the blending of pepper with other spices in a variety of spice mixes for preparing sauces, such as, cajun spice, Italian foods, seafood and a range of other specialized blends.
Because pepper is harvested by hand, quality control begins in the field with the careful observations of the harvesters. Bulk importation of peppercorns is monitored, as with all agricultural products, by government inspectors. In the factory, machinery and the steps in the processing or pepper are observed.
Pepper was considered so valuable that unscrupulous suppliers often mixed in mustard husks, juniper berries, and even floor sweepings and ground charcoal to stretch its value. In 1875, the British Sale of Food and Drugs Law imposed restrictions against the selling of adulterated pepper.
Although always prized as a flavor-enhancing spice, the peppercorn first gained fame for medicinal purposes as a digestive stimulant and expectorant. Its hot and pungent flavor causes the membranes inside the nose and throat to exude a lubricating secretion, helpful to those in respiratory distress by acting as an aid to induce coughing. Pepper was also used in an external ointment to relieve skin afflictions and hives.
Black pepper is also an effective deterrent to insects. A solution of one-half teaspoon freshly ground pepper to one quart of warm water sprayed on plants can be toxic to ants, potato bugs, silverfish and even roaches and moths. A sprinkling of ground pepper will also deter insect paths in non-garden areas.
Types of Pepper
Peppercorns (piper nigrum) ground for use on the table and in cooking originally came from India, but is now cultivated in Indonesia, Malaysia, China, Sri Lanka, Madagascar and South America. India is still the major producer of this spice with over half of the product coming from there.
A perennial bush, which often grows wild, is grown on trellises similar to grape vines. The bush has round, smooth jointed stems, dark green leaves and small white flowers. The flowers become the berries. The flowers grow in clusters of up to 150 berries. Grown from cuttings, the bush bears fruit after three or four years until about fifteen years old. Typically, pepper bushes grow best near the equator and some believe the closer to the equator the hotter the peppercorn. From this bush, three types of peppercorn are harvested: black, green and white.
Black peppercorns are the dried berry and the most pungent and strongest in flavor of the three. The berries are picked just before they are ripe and are typically sun dried. As they dry, an enzyme is released which darkens the hull of the berry to anywhere from dark brown to jet black. Within the hull is a lighter seed which causes a variance in the color of the ground pepper. Black pepper comes in many forms; whole, cracked and ground. The ground pepper has varying degrees in size from fine to coarse. Some of the uses are as follows: in whole form for pickling and stocks, cracked for meats and salads and ground for everything else.
Currently the Tellicherry pepper is the most popular. It is named after the port and region, it is gathered from. It is the oldest source of black pepper, though Alleppey and Pandjung are also long time areas for the export of this spice. The Tellicherry peppercorn is larger and darker than others. It has a more complex flavor which is why it is more popular. Tellicherry and Malabar come from the same region in Southwest India. The Tellicherry is picked slightly closer to being ripe and is considered to be slightly better than the Malabar. Malabar has a green hue with a strong flavor.
Green peppercorns are the green berry picked long before they are ripe, which can be freeze-dried to preserve the smooth texture and bright color. While the green peppercorn gives a strong tart punch of flavor to begin with, it does not linger long in the mouth. These can also be pickled for shipment. The berries for the green and black peppercorns are actually picked at about the same time but the green are not allowed to dry. Drying prevents enzymes from activating. Green peppercorns only come packed in brine, water or freeze-dried. Some of the uses are as follows: for meat sauces or for seasoning poultry, vegetables, and seafood.
The United States is one of the largest consumers of black pepper and has a much higher demand for black pepper than white pepper. However, Europeans prefer the white pepper over the black. This peppercorn consists of mature berries that are given a short water bath in order to remove the husks before the remaining seed is sun-dried. The removal of the husk prevents the dark color forming during the drying process. As the berry ripens, it becomes a bright red color. During the drying process, it becomes white. A second way for the white pepper to be harvested is to harvest the green berry, soak it for several days before rubbing off the outer layer. The remaining seed is then either dried for used whole or ground. This pepper has a long drawn out flavor which lingers. White pepper has two forms: whole and ground. Generally white is preferred over black for any dish where the pepper might show, such as in the following uses: white sauces, cream soups and fish or poultry dishes.
These are rare and difficult to find, particularly in the United States. They are the red berries ripened on the vine. Instead of just picking the berries, they are harvested with part of the vine. These are best used within a very short period of time. The red peppercorn has a sweet and mellow flavor in contrast to the pungent strong flavor of the black. Since these are rare in the United States, most recipes calling for red pepper are referring to ground cayenne or red chilies.
Blends and Combinations:
Blending the three types of pepper doesn’t really enhance the flavors; however, there are two blends which can work nicely. Black and green combined add a bit more bite to a dish. Black and white combined makes the flavor linger longer.
Peppercorns can also be blended with other products like garlic, coriander, lemon, shallot and chipotle pepper. A favorite is lemon pepper chicken or fish and the main spice in those dishes come from a combination of lemon and pepper.
There are several varieties of peppercorns which are do not belong to the piper nigrum family. These come from several different types of plants that have a different flavor and should not be used as a substitute. Some are as follows:
Long pepper (piper longum) originates in central Africa but is now also grown in India and Eastern China. The bud fruit is about an inch long and consists of lots of tiny black and gray seeds. The taste is a mild pepper flavor. This was commonly used during the Middle Ages and is best used in sweet, hot recipes that include ginger. Suggestions for use are in uncooked recipes where he flavor won’t be cooked away, such as, fresh fruit salad or coleslaw.
Pink peppercorns (shinus molle) are grown in Madagascar, Mexico and Australia. The pale pink berries are harvested in the summer. Initially this has a pepper flavor but ends tasting sweet. It is good for vegetable and seafood dishes and is not a good replacement for regular pepper. It can cause an allergic reaction in children. The schinus terebinthifolius species, also used as a pink pepper, looks similar to a holly tree and is grows in parts of the United States. There is an additional pink peppercorn which comes from the Baies rose plant (euonymus phellomanus) which is also from Madagascar.
Sichuan or Szechuan pepper is commonlyfound in China and used in many Chinese and Japanese dishes, but it is also a good addition to chicken noodle soup. The pepper comes from the berries of the prickly Ash tree native to China. They are more spicy than regular pepper.
Pepperleaf (piper sanctum) is cultivated in Peru and Argentina. The leaves are harvested year round. The green leaf is picked from a bush which is in the pepper family. It is very similar to cilantro and best used fresh. It has a little bite but mellows to a sweeter flavor.
Pepper Cooking Tips
In standard recipes, avoid adding ground pepper until the end of the cooking process, so its flavor does not get dulled. When cooking a recipe using a large amount of pepper over high heat, be aware, that any smoke from the peppered food can cause irritation, so be sure you have proper ventilation.
Italian Recipes That Use Peppercorns
Cracked Pepper Cheese Ball
Serve with breadsticks, crackers or focaccia bread as an appetizer.
Makes 12 servings
- 1-8 ounce package reduced fat cream cheese, softened
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped Italian parsley
- 1 small clove garlic, minced
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon cracked black pepper or more
In electric mixer bowl on medium speed, beat cream cheese until smooth. Add parsley and the next 5 ingredients and blend thoroughly.
Line an 8 ounce round bowl or crock with plastic wrap, leaving overhang long enough to cover the top of the bowl. Pack cheese mixture into bowl and smooth the top with the back of a spoon.
Cover top with plastic wrap overhang and refrigerate at least two hours or up to two days.
Place cracked black pepper on a piece of wax paper. Pull up on plastic to remove cheese from the bowl. Turn cheese ball onto the paper with the cracked black pepper and remove plastic wrap, Roll ball around on the cracked pepper to coat the outside evenly. You may need more pepper, depending on how much pepper covering you want on the cheese ball. Place on a serving dish.
Cacio e Pepe
- Kosher salt
- 6 oz. pasta (such as egg tagliolini, bucatini or spaghetti)
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cubed and divided
- 1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
- 3/4 cup finely grated Grana Padano or Parmesan cheese
- 1/3 cup finely grated Pecorino Romano cheese
Bring 3 quarts water to a boil in a 5-qt. pot. Season with salt; add pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until about 2 minutes before tender. Drain, reserving 3/4 cups pasta cooking water.
Meanwhile, melt 2 tablespoons butter in a large heavy skillet over medium heat. Add pepper and cook, swirling pan for 1 minute.
Add 1/2 cup reserved pasta water to skillet and bring to a simmer. Add pasta and remaining butter. Reduce heat to low and add Grana Padano cheese, stirring and tossing with tongs until incorporated. Remove pan from heat; add Pecorino Romano cheese, stirring and tossing until sauce coats the pasta, and pasta is cooked al dente. (Add more pasta water if sauce seems dry.) Transfer pasta to warm bowls and serve.
Fennel And Peppercorn Crusted Tuna Steaks
- 1 tablespoon fennel seeds
- 1 tablespoon whole peppercorns
- 1 teaspoon dried rosemary
- 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 tuna steaks
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
Crush fennel seeds, peppercorns, pepper flakes and dried rosemary in a mortar and pestle (or pulse once or twice in a spice grinder – you want them slightly ground, but not pulverized).
If using a mortar and pestle, add garlic and salt and smash until garlic is evenly distributed (mixture will look like wet sand, not paste-like). If you used the spice grinder, coarsely chop garlic and leave on cutting board. Sprinkle with spice mixture and salt and press into with the side of a knife or bottom of pan until blended.
Pat tuna steaks dry with paper towels and press garlic-spice mixture into both sides of steaks.
Place dry skillet over medium-high heat – let pan get hot. Gently place tuna steaks in pan.
Cook about 2-3 minutes on each side for rare, 4-5 for medium or 6 minutes for well done, carefully flipping with spatula. Just like a steak, it’s ready to flip – when it’s seared properly, the tuna will no longer stick to the pan. Remove from heat and cover for about 5 minutes.
Beef Filet With Green Peppercorn Sauce
4 servings. For 8 (4-ounce) servings, cut steaks diagonally into thin slices; divide over 8 plates. Drizzle evenly with sauce.
- 4 (8-ounce) beef tenderloin filets
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon pepper
- 1 teaspoon butter or margarine
- 1 teaspoon olive oil
- 2 cups Marsala
- 1 cup fat-free, low-sodium beef broth
- 20 green peppercorns, drained
- 5-ounces fat-free evaporated milk
- 1/4 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- Garnish: Italian parsley sprigs
Sprinkle beef steaks evenly with salt and pepper.
Melt butter with olive oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add beef and cook 6 minutes on each side or until cooked to medium rare (145°F) to medium (160°F). Remove beef from skillet and keep warm.
Add wine, broth and peppercorns to skillet and bring to a boil; cook until liquid is reduced by half. Reduce heat to low and stir in evaporated milk and mustard; cook 5 minutes or until slightly thickened. Return beef to skillet and turn to coat in the sauce. Garnish with parsley, if desired.
Note: Green peppercorns are immature, tender peppercorns jarred in brine. They can be found near capers in the pickled food section of the supermarket.
Seared Peppered Scallops with Orange Sauce
- 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- 1 1/2 pounds sea scallops, patted dry with paper towels
- 2 teaspoons ground peppercorn blend, or ground black pepper
- 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped (about 2 teaspoons)
- 1/2 cup orange juice
- 1/2 teaspoon (packed) grated orange peel and the rest of the orange peeled and cut into segments
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
Heat oil in large skillet over high heat. Sprinkle scallops with pepper blend and salt. Working in batches, add scallops to skillet in single layer; saute until lightly brown, about 2 minutes per side. Transfer scallops to a serving plate with sides, leaving drippings in pan.
Add garlic to drippings in skillet; stir 30 seconds. Add orange juice and orange peel. Boil until sauce thickens to syrup, stirring frequently, about 2 minutes.
Add the butter and oregano. Continue cooking over high heat, stirring to bring up any brown bits on the bottom of the skillet, about one minute more. Add the orange segments and mix well. Pour sauce over scallops and serve.
Pears with Vanilla Sugar Syrup and Black Peppercorns
From The Grand Hotel Timeo Restaurant in Taormina, Sicily.
- 4 ripe Anjou pears, stemmed, cut in half, cored and cut into 1/4-inch thick slices
- Juice of two lemons
- 2 cups water
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 medium vanilla bean
- 2 teaspoons black peppercorns
Cover the pear slices with lemon juice and allow to stand covered for 10 minutes.
Combine the water and sugar in a medium-size saucepan. Bring to boil, lower the heat to simmer.
Slit the vanilla bean lengthwise with a small knife. Scrape out the seeds with the knife tip and add to the water and sugar mixture.
Scoop the pear slices from the lemon juice and add them to the water and sugar mixture along with the peppercorns. Simmer for 10 minutes. Cool in the pan then transfer to a bowl. Serve at room temperature.
- Your Questions: The 10 Essential Spices for Stocking Your Pantry (thebittenword.com)
- Make Your Own Pepper Blends for More Flavorful Cooking (lifehacker.com)
- I’m a pepper …. (madcrowherbals.com)
- White Pepper (lukehoney.typepad.com)
- The Spiciest Dish in the World (and How to Make it) (theflyingfugu.com)