The waiter is behind you with a giant mill: "Fresh pepper?"
I'll be the first to admit: I keep a snazzy pepper mill next to my stove. I've bought a refill jar of black peppercorns within the last six months. I think I even get a cheap thrill out of pepper-induced sneezes. I am, in short, a black pepper fan.
Hopefully that makes what I'm about to say sound a little less blasphemous.
Pepper is massively overused, and has no place on our dinner tables. Really, it doesn't belong on most foods we eat and cook.
Now before you go throwing stones (or peppercorns), hear me out. Whereas salt, if used properly, is a seasoning that can enhance the flavors of foods, pepper is essentially a spice—even a condiment. It adds its own flavor to foods, and, broadly speaking, that flavor is heat.
True, there are several types of peppercorns—green, black and white—each with its own nuances. But, in fact, they all come from the same plant. The green ones are just picked as so and meant to be eaten fresh, the black are green ones that have been dried, and the white are just black ones with the outer skin stripped off.
White and green are on the milder side and are sometimes preferred on pale foods when black specks are less than desirable, but all three have a spicy background.
Now, you know the setting: You're sitting in a restaurant. Your order has just arrived. Before you've so much as lifted your fork, the waiter is behind you with a giant mill: "Fresh pepper?"
Is pepper so universally flattering to foods that we know we want it before we even taste our meal? In the words of my culinary school chef-instructor: "If you love pepper that much, have all you want when you're sitting on your couch eating a baked potato in your underwear."
But when sitting down to a well-cooked meal, it's not necessary, nor is it doing our dishes any good.
After all, maybe the greens in your prepared salad are incredibly spicy, or your chicken was already dressed in a peppery sauce. We're not helping ourselves with a knee-jerk dumping of hot, pungent powder onto everything we eat.
The same goes with cooking. Foods that can almost always benefit from a dusting tend to be robust enough that their flavor marries, and isn't overwhelmed, by the peppery punch—think red meat, mushrooms, and red cabbage. But when working with most other foods, treat pepper the way you would an herb or spice—think (and taste) before you add it.
When you've—consciously, people!—made the choice to season away, freshly ground is usually the way to go. (Pre-ground pepper has a flat taste and no pop, so what's the point?) And if you're looking for even bolder flavor, try smashing peppercorns coarsely using the side of a wide knife, or adding them whole to season sauces, stocks or marinades (just remove them before serving).
By the way, I am writing this at home on my couch. With a baked potato. Well, you know.
About the author: "Sue Veed" is an editor at a Manhattan-based food magazine and a current culinary student who's trying to learn it all so she can cook it all. She'll take us along for the ride as she makes the journey from home cook to professional. Among things she may never master: looking natural in a chef's hat, and acting demure whenever a pork product hits the table.