Pepper is a universal spice which was once more highly prized in trade than any other. The pungent berries have been used throughout history as a culinary ingredient, healing substance and digestive stimulant, and also as an aphrodisiac! In cooking, peppercorns are used in kitchens around the globe to enhance savoury and sweet dishes alike.
Some sixty per cent or so of the world’s spice trade is in pepper, according to spice expert Ian 'Herbie' Hemphill of Herbie’s Spices. Herbie says that all true pepper originates from the berries of the tropical evergreen vine, Piper nigrum. Small white flowers opposite the leaves on the plant produce massed, grapelike clusters of peppercorn berries which change from green to yellowish-green to red as they ripen.
There are quite distinctive differences across the pepper varieties and the berry is processed to produce four basic types of peppercorns: black, white, green and pink. In his Dictionary of Herbs & Spices, Herbie explains that black peppercorns result from green, unripe berries which have been picked from the vine and allowed to dry in full sunlight until they harden, shrivel and turn black. 'The natural enzymes in the outer husk of the peppercorns turn the green berries black on drying, forming the volatile oil piperine which gives black pepper its characteristic flavour.' Black pepper is suitable for general use as a seasoning.
Green peppercorns are the unripe berries which are available fresh, freeze-dried, or preserved in brine, vinegar or natural juices. Such processing prevents the outer husk of the peppercorns from turning black. Green peppercorns are soft and piquant--delicious when mashed into sauces or served with steak.
White pepper is produced by soaking fully-ripened peppercorns in water, rubbing off the outer skin and allowing the kernels to bleach and dry in the sun. White pepper is hotter and less aromatic than black, however, Herbie notes it lacks the oily piperine taste found in black pepper. White pepper is used in white sauces and dishes where a more delicate flavour is required.
Pink peppercorns have a sweet, almost fruity note combined with an underlying heat. True pink peppercorns are the fully ripe berries which have been picked and preserved in brine to retain their colour. Dried 'pink peppercorns' come from the shinus species of tree and have a pine-like flavour, unlike pepper. Not a good substitute for the real thing!
Black and white peppercorns are available whole, cracked and coarsely or finely ground. However, for best results and intensity of flavour, peppercorns should be freshly ground. Whole dried peppercorns should be stored in a cool, dark pantry or pepper mill and will keep for up to a year. Ground pepper quickly loses its flavour and will keep for only a few months. Brine-preserved green and pink peppercorns should be refrigerated once opened and will keep for three to four weeks.
As a culinary seasoning, pepper is almost taken for granted. Savour its flavour and for something a little different use it in sweet tarts or strudels with apples and pears. Yum!
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NB: I use Australian standard measuring cups and spoons in my recipes.