Cooking With Black Pepper: Understanding How Black Pepper Modifies the Flavor of Food

Salt and pepper are as iconic a duo as they come, usually mentioned in the same breath. But while their combined powers are a good bet when seasoning just about any dish, black pepper is more than just the yin to salt’s yang—it carries a complex flavor profile in its own right.

What Is Black Pepper?

Black peppercorn is a spice used in many cuisines all over the world. It’s sold as either whole peppercorns in a number of different varieties, or as ground black pepper. While salt is a mineral that enhances the flavors of food, black pepper changes the flavor of food, adding depth and some spice.

Where Does Black Pepper Come From?

Black pepper vines (piper nigrum, of the family Piperaceae) are native to Kerala in Southern India. As a tropical plant, black pepper is also grown in places like Vietnam, one of the modern world’s leading producers. The vine’s fruit, the peppercorns, grow in long conical bunches.

In ancient times, this “King of Spices” was used for everything from mummification rituals to currency. By Roman times, the spice trade brought ships directly to the Malabar coast and made the spice far more available, making pepper an invaluable seasoning for many dishes.

What Are the Different Types of Pepper?

All pepper is not the same, although the three types—black, green, and white—all come from the same bush.

  • Black peppercornsare fully mature and have the strongest flavor, which comes from piperine, a chemical compound found in the skin. (Piperine is different than capsaicin, the compound responsible for spicy heat in chili peppers.)
  • White peppercornsare fully ripe berries which are then fermented and stripped of the outer skin. They tend to have a more nose-prickling quality but lack the brute strength of black ones. They are generally used for aesthetic purposes in a white sauce, for example, where you might not want to have black specks.
  • Green peppercornsare immature berries that are either dried or brined. They are milder and much used in Asian cooking.
  • Pink peppercorns(also called red peppercorns) are a slightly different variety of pepper and actually hail from the Peruvian pepper tree. Pink peppercorns lend dishes a fruity heat with a visual kick thanks to their bright color, either as a garnish or in simple salad dressings.

Note that Szechuan pepper is not actually a type of pepper at all, but the pod of an Asian berry that, when dried, looks like a peppercorn. Szechuan pepper features as one of the key ingredients in the Chinese five-spice blend. It has a mild lemony flavor and causes a slight tingling around the mouth when you eat it.

Cooking With Black Pepper as an Added Flavor

The main difference between salt and pepper is that while salt and acid enhance, pepper adds flavor to the overall dish. One (salt) heightens, the other (pepper) changes. Consider what flavor notes you’re looking to highlight in the final dish before reaching for the black pepper out of habit. How can pepper’s earthy zing complement the entire presentation?

If you want to cook pepper-forward dishes, try making black pepper crab, black pepper chicken, and vegan black pepper tofu as main courses; black pepper lavash as a side dish or appetizer; and black pepper pound cake, nutmeg and black pepper popovers, or black pepper soufflé for dessert.

How to Store Black Pepper

Store whole black peppercorns in an airtight container to maintain the freshness of the essential oils. A pepper mill or grinder does the trick, too.

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Source: Master Class


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