Today, Americans consume more pepper than all other spices combined and in the last decade or so, attention shifted from ground pepper to peppercorns that range from white to pink in color.
Pepper makes up about one-fourth of the world's trade in spices and Americans consume roughly four ounces a year per person. When it comes to black verses white pepper, Americans consume 12 times more black pepper than white, while Europeans prefer white pepper.
Green pepper comes in third in the pepper popularity contest, followed by pink peppercorn added to dishes mostly for its color.
Freshly cracked pepper is always the best tasting. When you freshly crack pepper from the peppercorn, it gives off more flavor and aroma. Some peppercorns are pretty; others are pungent. Black, white and green peppercorns all come from the same plant, while the so-called pink and Sichuan peppercorns are from different plants. Below are tips to help you pick the best peppercorns for your cooking needs.
Picking the Perfect Peppercorn
These are unripe when picked, just before turning red and ripening to be dried. Black Tellicherry Peppercorns are considered the finest in the world and come from the Malabar coast of India. They blacken as they dry and have a full, robust flavor. Lampong black peppercorns from Indonesia are picked earlier in the ripening process and have a sharpness.
In America, black peppercorns are key to fiery Cajun and Creole cooking.
Technically, white peppercorns are actually black peppercorns with the pericarp removed, revealing a smooth, creamy white center, called the heart. Removing the pericarp is arduous, which is why white peppercorns are considered a gourmet spice, and are more expensive than black. White peppercorn is hotter and sharper than black, but slightly sweet.
Some say white peppercorns have a lighter flavor than black peppercorns while others argue the opposite. To prevent discoloration in white sauces, cooks use white peppercorns. The French are fond of white pepper, which blends nicely with the many cream based sauces in their cuisine.
Green peppercorns are unripe black peppercorns that have been plunged into boiling water, which inactivates the ripening enzymes and stops them from turning black. Green peppercorns are either commercially dehydrated or they may be pickled in brine. They have a zesty, perky bite different from black peppercorns. The slightly sour flavor is good for garnish, butters and game meats. They can also be eaten whole.
Green peppercorns became all the rage in the 1970s, with the popularity of French nouvelle cuisine.
Pink peppercorns have been left on the vine, turning from green to yellow to ripened red. Then they are picked and sold as so-called pink peppercorns. Like white, they are considered a gourmet spice. They are aromatic, with a benign and subtle flavor.
From a small South American shrub, and not a proper member of the pepper family, they are sweet and fruity; good as an alternative pepper or in combination with green pepper. They are too soft to grind; cooks will sprinkle them whole in dishes, including salads, eggs, seafood, white sauces and chicken. When sauteed or cooked in sauces, the flavor changes to become similar to black pepper.
Chinese peppers used along with ginger to provide heat in Asian dishes. There is no relation to black pepper. Quite aromatic but not very hot, this pepper preceded chile peppers in Asian cultures.
There are several ways you can grind a peppercorn. You may whirl the peppercorns through a coffee grinder or invest in a pepper mill that grinds from fine to extra-coarse with the twist of a lever.
The best pepper mill has a warranty and a lot of adjustment from fine to very coarse. To determine just how fine to grind your peppercorns remember salads and steaks require a coarse grind, and sauces lend themselves to a finer grind. Pepper mills come in varying degrees of sophistication from natural walnut or clear acrylic to ceramic, copper and brass. Moreover, remember that pink peppercorns are too soft to grind.
Another option is to put a little hard work into it and use a rolling pin or a mortar and pestle set.
The Pepper Shaker
A few peppercorns in the pepper shaker will keep the holes from clogging and, as a bonus, gives your pepper more of a freshly ground taste.
To prevent a clogged pepper shaker place a dried pea in the pepper container.
Did You Know?
- The land of pepper is India's Malabar Coast, where the best tasting pepper in the world is still grown today. Indian black pepper is considered superior because it is particularly rich in piperine, the compound that zaps your taste buds and triggers a sneeze when it hits the nerve endings inside your nose.
- One Chinese herbal remedy still in use today consists of a dried powder made from one radish and 99 peppercorns!
- Romans loved to season their food with pepper, and they buried meat and other perishable foods under piles of pepper to keep it from spoiling.
- Scientists now know that piperine can inhibit the deadly bacteria that cause botulism.
- Next to salt, pepper is the world's most frequently used spice.
- Black pepper is a principal ingredient in many of India's most beloved spice blends, including garam masala and sambaar masala.
- Ground black pepper can help repel ants.
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