The wrinkled little peppercorn has played a big role in the history of food.
It is the world's most important spice, due to its near-worldwide popularity and the effect meeting its demand had on global trade and exploration. It has long been thought to contain healing qualities—Sanskrit medical volumes dating back more than 3,000 years include advice on how to administer it. By the fifth century, pepper was so wildly valuable it was used to pay off taxes and levies in place of currency; rent and dowries were sometimes paid in pepper; and when Rome was besieged by the Visigoths in 408 CE, 3,000 pounds of peppercorns were included in the ransom paid for the city’s release. At its most valuable, pepper was worth its weight in gold.
All through the ancient world and into Europe’s Middle Ages, pepper appears to have been universally beloved, as prized in India as it was in northern Europe, as eagerly traded in the ports of Venice as it was in the ports of Egypt. And while the world’s consumption of pepper was enormous then, it is, naturally, even more enormous now: It accounts for about one-fifth of the world’s spice trade today.
Pungent, earthy, hot, woody, brash—pepper’s distinct flavor somehow pairs well with just about any savory food, and some sweet ones, too. If salt helps bring out flavors, black pepper makes foods bolder versions of themselves.
The word “pepper” is used to describe dozens of different types and varieties that come in a medley of colors, a spectrum of grades, and a range of qualities. It is even used for imitators that are not pepper at all. But it applies first and foremost to the dried fruit of Piper nigrum, a climbing shrub native to India.
The plant’s vine wraps itself around trees in the wild, and in commercial growing, it’s manually wrapped around sturdy stakes. Small flowers produce rows of berries, drooping off the vines as the berries mature and the flower fades away. Once the first berries on the spike go from green to red, the whole spike is plucked, harvested, and dried under a hot sun, going from round and fleshy fruit to the hard and wrinkly orb familiar to almost everyone all around the world.
Black peppercorns begin as green berries on the vine. Once the bunch of berries has ripened and the first go from green to dark red, the spikes are harvested and shriveled by the sun into puckered, dark brownish spheres, which we call “black” peppercorns. (Look closely, and you’ll see coloring ranging from gray to brown to dark red to black.) A spike of peppercorns will contain different-sized berries, as the ones at the very top grow larger than the ones at the bottom.
After they’re dried, the peppercorns are sifted through mesh screens to sort them into different grades according to size. The larger the peppercorn, the better and stronger the flavor, with the largest peppercorns sorted into the highest grades.
The top 10 percent of the pepper crop—the largest peppercorns—are Tellicherry peppercorns. And the best of the top 10 percent are further sorted into “Tellicherry Extra Bold” or “Tellicherry Special Bold” varietals. If Tellicherry is the wagyu beef of the black peppercorn world, the bold Tellicherry is a wagyu ribeye: the best of the best, truly some of the strongest, most pungent peppercorns in the world. The flavors are brash and punchy, with an undisputed depth of flavor that comes from their specific terroir and the growers’ long centuries of perfecting production.
Other types of black peppercorns are named for the regions they’re grown in, or their names are derived from the ports of India they were historically shipped out of. Malabar black pepper is named for India’s Malabar Coast in Kerala, along India’s southwestern point, where it was historically grown. (Over the centuries, pepper production expanded from the state of Kerala to much of southern India.)
Tellicherry also grows in this region, along the Malabar Coast, so Tellicherry can be thought of as the top 10 percent of the Malabar crop. “Malabar pepper,” however, refers to the next best thing after the top Tellicherry variety. It’s a solid option, especially if you want good-quality pepper without paying the premium price for Tellicherry or if you go through a lot of pepper quickly. Malabar peppercorns are smaller and milder in flavor, pungent but not quite as sharp and full-flavored as Tellicherry, and have a lighter brown coloring.
Not all pepper is grown in India. Lampong pepper is a very good Indonesian variety. Though it’s still not as good as Tellicherry, it provides a nicely bold flavor that’s somewhat hotter and more aromatic—not a ribeye cut from the world’s finest cows, but a high quality tenderloin.
If you’re not looking for a cut of beef alone on a plate, but maybe taco meat that goes well with other fixings, Sarawak pepper is a perfectly good option. It comes from Malaysia’s Sarawak state, an area better known for its white pepper. But it also produces this pleasant, mild black pepper. For stand-alone black pepper flavor, Malabar or Tellicherry is a better option; Sarawak black pepper is nice when used in a blend of spices, adding a simple, wispy note of black-pepper flavor.
Pepper has been growing in India for thousands of years, and New World pepper crops find it hard to compete, flavor-wise, with the depth of flavor that comes from Indian growers. Brazilian peppercorns are inferior in flavor, but provide an important resource for large companies that need enormous quantities of cheap pepper. Brazilian pepper is thin and one-dimensional; you’ll probably get just a hint of it when it’s used in prepackaged foods.
The differences between Brazilian and Tellicherry pepper is night and day, but among the higher quality peppers—the grades of Tellicherry, Malabar, and Lampong—it can be difficult to distinguish the differences if each is taken on its own. Direct side-by-side comparisons are the best way to see, smell, and taste these differences. And, be warned: testing for quality also assumes all the peppercorns are fresh. While the flavor of peppercorns survives far longer than many other spices, you still want to be cooking with freshly harvested pepper; usually not an issue for high-demand grades like Tellicherry, which sell quickly, but something to look out for in lower-quality peppercorns.
Like other fruits, young peppercorns start out green and grow darker as they age. Once picked, green peppercorns continue to ripen (just like bananas). Today’s pepper producers dehydrate green peppercorns after harvesting to prevent them from ripening into black pepper. In the past, green peppercorns were pickled in a brine, but that method is less common today, as drying technology has improved.
Green peppercorns lack the rich complexity of older, black peppercorns. It’s similar to the difference between a green tomato and a ripe red one—the green is younger and fresher tasting, not as complete as the red but still tasty on its own terms. Green peppercorns offer a zesty brightness that black peppercorns lack, and add a fruity vitality to dishes. Green pepper can be used in place of black pepper for a milder, brighter flavor. You can replace green peppercorns in pepper sauce recipes like steak au poivre for an interesting twist or mix green pepper with black pepper to coat a pork tenderloin or pork chops. Its mellow zest lends itself well to fish and other seafood, chicken, and in sauces of a delicate disposition, like cream sauces and vinaigrettes.
If you examine white peppercorns closely, you’ll see they lack the characteristic wrinkles of black peppercorns. That’s because all white peppercorns start as young black peppercorns, picked when ripe. Instead of drying these peppercorns out, they are put under running water or left to soak; the water dissolves the fruit’s skin, leaving a burnished white-gray color behind. This is also why white peppercorns are smaller than black peppercorns.
White peppercorns have quite a different flavor from black peppercorns. They’re not as richly complex and they lack black pepper’s bite, but they offer instead a floral, more delicate, yet pungent, fruity, flowery spiciness with a hint of fermentation due to how they’re processed—some have described the fermented smell as a kind of “barnyard funk.”
While white pepper isn’t very popular in the United States, it has a big fan base in Europe and parts of Asia. Its bite comes through in Chinese soups, like hot and sour soup, or in stir-fry dishes like Cashew Chicken Ding where it adds complex floral notes. In Europe it’s more frequently used in place of black pepper, and some cooks like it for its ability to blend in to light-colored dishes like whipped potatoes and vichyssoise, where black pepper could show up as black spots.
White pepper’s qualities vary depending on where it is grown and how it is processed. Sarawak white pepper, from Malaysia, is left under running water until the outer husk dissolves, which produces a brighter-tasting white peppercorn. Sarawak is potent, has a nice heat, and is generally stronger in flavor than the other main varietal, Muntok white pepper. This white pepper hails from Indonesia and the ripened berries are left sitting in water, which makes the end product a grayish color. Muntok is milder in flavor than Sarawak, but it is still a quality option that can be bought for cheaper.
The most interesting of the white pepper options, though, is Penja white pepper. This expensive, hard-to-find white pepper has a more robust flavor profile than its fellow whites, with a hot, dazzlingly intense initial burst of fragrance. Penja grows in Cameroon and was granted PGI (protected geographical indication) status after counterfeiters tried to take advantage of its popularity and price.
Cubeb and Long Pepper
The black, white, and green peppercorns above are all made from the same “true” pepper plant. But there are two more members of the Piper family: cubeb pepper and long pepper. While both were once popular in ancient Rome, Greece, and parts of China, today they’re little more than curiosities, found only at speciality spice shops. Both, however, are very tasty additions to your spice rack, especially if your love for black pepper runs deep.
Long pepper, one of the most appealing-looking spices in its whole form, is hotter and sweeter than standard black pepper, adding a splash of spiciness reminiscent of ginger’s punchy flavor. Cubeb pepper (also called Java pepper, Benin pepper, and tailed pepper) has a sharp, astringent flavor, with a strain of nutmeg-like warmth. Both long and cubeb peppers are suitable substitutions for black pepper.
Long pepper adds an especially interesting, complex note, making it a good addition to foods where a lot of pepper is added at the table, like poultry, beef, and stews. Try grinding some in a mortar and pestle (the long shape won’t go through a regular pepper grinder’s mechanisms) and mixing half-and-half long and regular black pepper for a dazzling, but grounded, pepper flavor.
Other spices sought to capitalize on pepper’s popularity by co-opting its name. This name-borrowing was mostly contained to other spices with a similar piquant bite, but “pink peppercorns” adopted it solely because they were roughly the same shape and size.
A similar impulse was at work with the naming of the New World capsicum plant family, now better known as chili peppers. These fleshy fruits, ranging in hotness from the mild bell pepper to the fiery habanero and beyond, originated in South and Central America, but were so quickly and thoroughly adapted by cultures around the world that many people are confused about their origins.
Along with vanilla and allspice, the Old World’s discovery of what we today call “chili peppers” or “hot peppers” marked a new era in the spice trade, one in which New World goods added to the spices coming out of India, China, and the Maluku Islands (a.k.a., the Spice Islands). And the capsicums were given the familiar name “pepper” because of their heat. The doctor on Christopher Columbus’s ship called the fruits “Indian peppers.” His letter home describes the first taste of the pungent “wild fruits” that his men, “not very prudently,” tasted: “Upon only touching them with their tongues, their contenances [sic] became inflamed, and such great heat and pain followed, that they seemed to be mad.”
Pink pepper is a berry in the cashew family that’s roughly the same size as black peppercorns. It has a pleasantly sweet, bright, and fruity depth of flavor, and a little friendly heat. It brings a refreshing flavor to meat dishes, especially when used in conjunction with black pepper in game and poultry dishes. Used alone, its mild character nicely seasons blander foods like eggs, chicken, and white fish. Pink pepper is used to great effect as a flavor in chocolate, and it has been gaining popularity in ice cream. Its color is beloved by chefs for adding a splash of pretty crimson to light-colored sauces and as a garnish. Bartenders, too, use it to add an attractive element to drinks, especially to enhance the appearance of pink and red drinks like the spicy Marrakesh Express.
This ruby of the spice world has a fragile outer shell that crumbles easily, and, as such, you shouldn’t place it in a black pepper grinder, as the grinder’s mechanism is too forceful. Instead, it should be crumbled by hand or gently ground in a mortar and pestle.
Grains of Paradise
Grains of paradise may get their name from shrewd merchants who capitalized on pepper’s mystical, far-away origins: A popular tale in the ancient world and Europe’s Dark Ages described pepper and other spices as flowing out of paradise in a river of spice. Grains of paradise come from West Africa and are also known as ossame and melegueta pepper. They taste like a spicier, more cardamom-forward version of black pepper, with a hint of sweet ginger and cinnamon, plus a dash of citrus. If this sounds like a lot of flavors in one little seed, it is, and the wide-ranging flavor profile makes the grains a versatile addition to your spice rack. They can be used wherever you would use black pepper for a rounder, almost buttery version of black pepper’s signature sharpness. Try grains of paradise on steak and burgers or on roasted vegetables, or, really, in any dish you’d normally sprinkle with pepper.
Sichuan pepper has long been a staple of Chinese cooking. It doesn’t taste much like black pepper, but its distinct numbing property somewhat mimics true pepper’s heat. It’s also very aromatic. Sichuan’s numbing spiciness makes it a natural addition to hot fried chicken and other dishes where hot spice is at the forefront, like chili sauces, kung pao chicken and tofu, and dry-rubbed meats. Sichuan works especially well when used in conjunction with flavors that will cool and soothe Sichuan’s sting; think yogurt sauces for dipping spicy Xi'an-style chicken wings, and mint salads to go on top of a steak or lamb rubbed with a Sichuan-peppercorn-heavy seasoning.
Sansho pepper is Sichuan pepper’s Japanese cousin, and it produces an even stronger numbing, tingling sensation on the tongue. Like Sichuan pepper, sansho is often added to already spicy seasonings, can make almost any rice dish more interesting, and is called upon to cut fatty flavors in pork, eel, and rich mushrooms. Its electric sensation is gaining in popularity as a condiment for ramen, too.
Editors' Note: We're very excited to welcome Caitlin PenzeyMoog to our digital pages. PenzeyMoog is the managing editor of The A.V. Club, but more importantly (to us!), she's the author of the book On Spice: Advice, Wisdom, and History With a Grain of Saltiness. You could say spice runs in her blood, since her family runs both Penzeys Spices and The Spice House, two spice purveyors all of us here at Serious Eats turn to in our moments of spice need.