Serious Heat: Peppercorns 101
Note: On Wednesdays, Andrea Lynn, senior editor of Chile Pepper magazine, drops by with Serious Heat.
Come on now, let's be adventurous. Why fill that pepper grinder with just black peppercorns when you can spice it up with a variety of options. Penzy's offers a great selection of mixed peppercorn blends. But how do you know the difference? Here's a breakdown:
Grinding black peppercorns create a strong flavor, aroma and heat. Harvested before the berry is fully ripe, they are boiled briefly and then dried by machine or by sunlight (which causes the wrinkly skin). Most generic black pepper sold in grocery stores contains Brazilian black pepper that isn't as pungent as other varieties.
Considered by many as the best peppercorns in the world, these typically come from the Malabar Coast in southwestern India. Tellicherry peppercorns from this region are allowed to mature to a yellow-orange color before being harvested, therefore developing a spicier, more complex, and rich flavor. In the past, Tellicherry peppercorns have been traded for their weight in gold.
Coming from the same plant species as black peppercorns, the difference is that the white peppercorns have been allowed to fully ripen before having the black outer husks removed. White peppercorns, a popular variety in the United Kingdom, are often used in light dishes such as mashed potatoes or white sauces where black peppercorns would standout too much. While less aromatic than black peppercorns, they contain just as much if not more spiciness. Sarawak peppercorns from Malaysia are considered the best white peppercorns.
Green peppercorns are also harvested when the fruit is green and not yet ripe. Described as piquant and lively, the color is preserved through pickling in brine, air-drying or freeze-drying. Fresh, unpreserved peppercorns are used frequently in Thai cuisine, but are difficult to find in the U.S. and spoil quickly.
With a delicate and slight acidic flavor that melds with the spiciness, these lovely-hued peppercorns complement fruit sauces, vinaigrettes and desserts. Not coming from the same type of plant from other peppercorns, they are harvested from a plant native to Madagascar. They taste similar to black peppercorns but with a hint of sweetness.
A little misleading because despite the name, this is not a peppercorn. Rather, it is a berry of a native Chinese plant. Referred to by numerous spellings and names like Szechuan, Szetchwan and Prickly Ash, these spicy, citrus-like "peppercorns" are full-flavored and aromatic. In Sichuan cooking, they are combined with dried chiles to create many of the dishes unique to the cuisine. In 2005, the FDA lifted its ban of these due to concern they contained a pathogen that could destroy citrus crops in the U.S.
I'm partial to Tellicherry Peppercorns personally and can't resist adding Sichuan ones to a spicy dish for added oomph. What's your favorite peppercorn and how do you use it?