A Cook’s Guide to Pepper

It begins as a tall vine, spreading itself across the ground and winding itself up trees, exhibiting large leaves and small white flowers. Soon, it begins to bear fruit, which is harvested and then dried. This fruit is known as the peppercorn, arriving in such varieties as black, white, and green.

A mainstay on nearly every kitchen table and restaurant in the world, pepper of all sorts essentially dominates the culinary world as a super ingredient, lending its savory, spicy flavor to all manner of dishes and cuisines.

Black pepper is the most common, produced from dried, unripened berries, (black peppercorns), and then ground to a fine powder. White pepper is made from the seed of the fruit. The flavors are mildly different but equally spicy, and a mixture of both is often sold in supermarkets. They can be purchased separately, either in a ground or dried peppercorn form, in which a pepper grinder would be employed.

There are a few varieties of black peppercorns, mainly named after the areas they are produced. Prepared in different methods in order to preserve more of the volatile oils contained within the fruit, the quality of the pepper can range from low to very high grades of spice and flavor.

White pepper is traditionally used in sauces and fish, or in light colored dishes such as mashed potatoes. As with the black peppercorns, white pepper is also produced in different areas around the world, with the peppercorns from India being somewhat hotter than pepper produced in other locales.

Green peppercorns are quite common as well, though are typically used in Asian and Thai cuisine. Also produced from the berries before they have ripened, but air-dried in order to preserve their natural green color, their fresh, mildly fruity flavor lends itself well to vegetables, creamy sauces, and game meats.

Sometimes hard to find unless you are perusing a gourmet store, pink peppercorns, slightly more expensive, exhibit a delicious spicy flavor, with hints of sweet citrus and fragrant berries. Adding color and flavor, pink peppercorns are exquisite in fruit-based sauces and desserts, or salad dressings.

The pink peppercorns are technically not from a pepper plant, but a similar cousin, sometimes substituted for holly. The fruit is also known for various medicinal qualities.

Some supermarkets will have a mixed blend of the above four peppercorns, called by various names, the most common being either “Rainbow”, or simply “Mixed”. The mixture of the many subtle flavors creates an enticing blend that enhances both the appearance and the flavor of almost any dish is seasoned correctly. But be careful to purchase a true blend, some containers will be comprised mainly of black peppercorns with a sprinkling of the other colors.

Another type of pepper, though also unrelated to the pepper plant, is well-known in Asian cuisine. A pepper of many names, Sichuan is more commonly referred to as Szechwan Pepper. Mildly hot with a unique aroma, it goes very well poultry and noodles, but is used generously in all manner of dishes, usually accompanied by ginger. This pepper can be purchased in a ground form, but you will receive a more fragrant bouquet of spice by roasting the whole peppercorns.

Brazilian peppercorns have a unique flavor all their own; a sharp hotness with a dash of nutmeg. Used sparingly, a small amount is sufficient to add another layer of spicy flavor to your meal, but too much can overpower any other ingredients. A few dashes of this pepper can make an interesting hot sauce.

When using pepper, it is of course your judgment that makes each dish a flavorful masterpiece, seasoning lightly at first, and then adjusting to taste. You don’t want to over-season, as the peppers can easily make a dish either to hot or dilute the other flavors inherent in the dish.

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