Green, White and Black [Piper nigrum]

Pepper originated on the Malabar (west) coast of India, but major plantations were later established in Indonesia for trade with the Dutch. It is now grown also in Brazil and several Southeast Asian countries. Pepper has never been popular in Indonesia despite being grown there, but has long been used in India and parts of Southeast Asia, particularly before chilis were brought from South America. In Europe it has been the most important spice since the Roman Empire and was extremely expensive until the 18th century due to trade monopolies.

In more recent times pepper has spread to just about every cuisine, particularly since the price has fallen so much and growing area has increased. Pepper use has increased in Southeast Asia due to it being grown there now, and Thailand has taken a liking to fresh green peppercorns. The photo specimens are: brined Green Peppercorns (top), force dried Green Peppercorns (right), White Peppercorns (left) and Black Peppercorns (center). All these are from the same piper nigrum pepper vine, just picked at different stages of ripeness and processed differently.

More on Spices.

Few spices fade as quickly as peppercorns once ground, so you should always use fresh ground pepper. That can be a real hassle so I grind up about 2 teaspoons of black peppercorns every week and store it tightly capped in one of those tiny "must be useful for something" jars "sampler set" jams and jellies come in.

Pepper added to a recipe while it cooks will have a rather different effect than pepper applied at serving time.

Peppercorns of all colors are from the same piper nigrum pepper vine, just picked at different stages of ripeness and processed differently. Here are the main types:

  • Black Peppercorns are berries taken just before they are mature and sun dried with the green outer skin and flesh still surrounding the seed. The closer to mature at harvest the better the product, but the more risk, so a higher cost.
  • Tillicherry pepper is the highest grade of black pepper as the berries are picked at the ripest point they can still be made into black pepper - actually Tillicherry is more a dark brown. It comes from Tillicherry (Tellicherry or Thalassery) on the Malabar coast of Karala state in India.
  • White Peppercorns are fully matured red berries that are processed so the outer skin and flesh are rotted off. This provides the full pungency but little of the unique pepper flavor. White pepper is used in European cooking to keep white sauces pure white - considered important in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when "purity = white" was as important as "natural" is today. White peppercorns are also favored in China and somewhat in Southeast Asia - but I generally use the more flavorful black anyway.
  • Green Peppercorns are a lot more herbal in flavor than black peppercorns. They are either fresh (available only in pepper growing areas), force dried, pickled, or packed in brine. Dried green peppercorns are the correct item to use in Western dishes like pepper steak that use large amounts of peppercorns.
    If you have a recipe asking for fresh green peppercorns and don't know somebody at a pepper plantation you can used brined (a decent substitute) or you can soak force dried green peppercorns in water to reconstitute them (not the same but better than none). Pickled green peppercorns are considered too acidic for most recipes.
    Special Handling: The brine green peppercorns are packed in starts turning color immediately on opening. It will be black within hours, even refrigerated. Remove the strings of peppercorns, rinse and place them in plastic bags with water to cover (to prevent freezer burn) and freeze.
  • Red Peppercorns are fully ripe with skin on. They are only available pickled much beyond the pepper plantations and are very rare even then.
  • Pink Peppercorns are not pepper at all, but seeds of a New World tree related to cashews and sumac. See Pink Peppercorns.
  • Sichuan Peppercorns are not pepper at all but tiny seed pods from a Prickly Ash tree. See Sichuan Peppercorns.
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