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Taste Test: A Guide to Black Pepper
There's no shortage of places to get your black pepper from; as one of the world's most popular spices, it's grown all across the world's spice regions, from India to Indonesia to Ecuador and Brazil. We don't talk much about terroir when it comes to spices, but it's worth thinking about. After all, peppercorns are fruits just like grapes, and soil, growing conditions, and variety of peppercorn are all going to have an impact on flavor profile.
How strong are these flavor differences, and how do they pan out with food? We tasted peppercorns from seven major growing regions to find out. This isn't a taste test in our usual sense—we weren't trying to find the best peppercorns—but rather an effort to answer those questions, and in so doing put together an informal guide to the great wide world of black pepper.
How to Do a Pepper Tasting
Each pepper was ground and sampled for both flavor and aroma. You can try tasting spices straight, but it's easy to get palate fatigue. So we took lots of warm white rice with our samples, both to make them easier to taste and to see how the peppers' differences would pan out when eaten with food.
We also invited Lior Lev Sercarz of La Boîte é Epice to help us out. Lior is a master spice blender for some of the top chefs in New York and around the country. He seeks out the most obscure ingredients from the most unlikely places to make some incredible blends—if you could get anyone to help you navigate the world of spices, get Lior. And while the rest of us are amateurs when it comes to large spice tastings, Lior does this sort of thing for his job.
He gave us some criteria to keep in mind, both for evaluating the quality of peppercorns in general and their specific flavor differences.
General signs of quality:
- The peppercorns should be a relatively uniform color, a signature of higher quality and more consistent flavor.
- Darker peppercorns are more flavorful.
- Higher-grade peppercorns are usually more fresh than their low-grade counterparts.
Characteristics to keep in mind when tasting pepper:
- Citrus, mustard, or camphor flavors
- Texture: do the peppercorns crumble easily or stay pretty solid?
With these criteria in mind, and tissues in hand for the inevitable sneezing, we set to work taking notes on the flavors and aromas of our samples.
Perhaps our most interesting discovery was the low correlation between flavor and aroma, both in terms of intensity and tasting characteristics. Some peppers had knock-you-down aromas but mild flavors; others bore fruity, floral aromas but stronger, spicier tastes. That gives you a lot of options when choosing your pepper: do you want it there as a strong flavor or a light aromatic accent? And it makes for interesting blending options: if your ideal pepper has a citrusy aroma, roasted flavor, but also intense heat, you can combine different peppercorns in a grinder for a house blend. Here are all the peppers we tasted, with notes on each. They're listed here in order of overall preference from tasters, but keep in mind that it's hard to say pepper is "better" than another—different flavors, aromas, and textures all have different uses.
Lampong (origin: Indonesia)
There's a slow burn in these peppercorns that evolves into a more intense heat. Several tasters noted strong citrusy aromas; others smelled woodsy, pine notes. This didn't taste like the most intense peppercorn, and it definitely bore more aroma than flavor. One taster suggested it for crusting a steak: the bright, light aromas and mild-but-spicy flavor would make a good complement to a fatty ribeye.
Tellicherry (origin: India)
Tellicherry peppercorns are like San Marzano tomatoes: they need to come from Tellicherry, a city on the Malabar coast of Kerala in India. They're considered some of the finest peppercorns in the world, and one of the few "names" in pepper that people are familiar with. Our sample tasted especially sweet, and tasters noted aromas from fruity to grassy to citrus and pine—but most of all, a certain bright freshness. The sweet, balanced flavor and complex aroma make it a great stand-alone pepper.
The New World grows plenty of pepper, and while this sample wasn't especially complex (notes suggested "one-note"), it has a brash intensity we found appealing. An especially pungent, nose-clearing bite gives way to a more mild, easygoing flavor. Some detected very mild citrus and herbal notes. This is good for a quick, punchy black pepper hit that you don't want to linger; or add it to blends for its strong opening notes.
Another pepper with intense aroma but mild flavor—and very different aromas and flavors. "Strong" was the dominant note on smell, with suggestions of fruit, citrus, and even fennel, according to one taster. The mellow flavor evokes black tea, smoke, and wood, but it's "not crazy complex" and isn't too hot, either. This would be interesting in cacio e pepe, perhaps better when paired with Brazilian peppercorns for heat.
Malabar (origin: India)
Malabar peppercorns hail from the same growing region as Tellicherry, but aren't as tightly controlled. Like the Tellicherry, we noticed complex but balanced aromas with accents of citrus, resin, and berries, though it didn't share the Tellicherry's intense sweetness. Instead it had a mildly dark, slightly bitter flavor. Another good all-purpose pepper, with warm, spiced notes for more dark, savory dishes like braises.
Sarawak (origin: Malaysia)
One of the more "peppery" of the samples, which is a lot less obvious than it sounds; this had a musky, earthy aroma and a mild flavor. Some tasters thought it tasted too plain, but one remarked: "delicious, I could put this on everything." It's A mellow, chameleon pepper with a brusque aroma and a slight sweetness. A strong choice for barbecue rubs that want to feature spice and sweet with a hint of peppery roughness.
Talamanca (origin: Ecuador)
"Smells more like other spices than pepper," one taster said. There's slow chili-like heat here, lemon oil, and smoke aromas, with pungent flavor and a bitter finish. It was a divisive pepper: some loved it, others hated it. I wouldn't use it on its own, but it'd be excellent in spice blends, especially those with a citrus element.
Some Notes of Caution
These notes should hopefully give a sense of the diversity of flavor and aroma that black pepper has to offer. But I want to make clear that this wasn't an exhaustive tasting: we neither sampled pepper from every place it's grown, nor did we have the resources to try multiple samples from the same growing region. So take these notes as a guide and recognize that your mileage may vary a bit.
What's the best way to find the right pepper for you? Buy a few small bags and try them out for yourself. Chances are, if you get quality pepper to start, you'll find uses for all of them.