Pepper...the most popular spice.
If you've taken a look at the spice aisle in your local grocery store you've probably noticed the array of peppercorns that are available. Additionally, you will find a bit of black pepper added to almost every type of recipe imaginable. Throughout history pepper was used as currency and presented as a sacred offering. We are fortunate this popular spice is available throughout the year and at a well affordable price.
Black pepper comes from the pepper plant, a smooth woody vine that can grow up to 33 feet in hot and humid tropical climates. The plant will bear small white clustered flowers after 3 to 4 years, (yes, years), and develop into berries know as peppercorns. When peppercorns are ground, the spice known as pepper is produced.
Pepper not only affects flavors in the culinary world but provides amazing health benefits as well. Black pepper stimulates the taste buds in such a way that alerts the stomach to increase hydrochloric acid secretion, therefore improving digestion and intestinal health. Black pepper reportedly has an antioxidant and antibacterial effect promoting the health of the digestive tract.
Black pepper is available whole, crushed or ground into powder. To ensure the best flavor, buy whole peppercorns and grind in a mill just before adding to a recipe. Whole peppercorns should be heavy, compact and free of blemishes. Black pepper should be kept in a tightly sealed glass container in a cool, dark and dry place like a pantry or kitchen cabinet. Whole peppercorns will keep almost indefinitely, while ground pepper will stay fresh for about three months. Pepper can also be frozen although this will make its flavor more pronounced.
Serving and Entertaining Ideas
Coat steaks with crushed peppercorns before cooking to create the classic dish, steak au poivre.
Place mixed peppercorns in a clear pepper mill for added interest and added flavors.
Keep a pepper mill handy in your kitchen work space and on your dining table.
Olive oil, lemon juice, salt and cracked pepper makes a delicious salad dressing.
Different Types of Pepper
Green peppercorns are the unripened fruits, which are pickled or preserved in brine. A favorite of French chefs, they are less pungent than other forms, and are used in various ways including as a garnish, as a spice in meat dishes and in salad dressings. Once a jar is opened, the green peppercorns will remain in good condition for about two weeks if kept refrigerated.
Black peppercorns are the most common form. The fruits are harvested in their unripened or green stages, boiled for about 10 minutes, and then are allowed to dry until they become wrinkled and black. They are sold in this form or are ground (sometimes along with white pepper) into a powder. Although they keep for up to a year when sealed in glass jars, black peppercorns quickly lose their aroma, taste, and pungency after they are ground. For that reason, cooks are advised not to use pre-ground powder, but rather to keep a peppermill for custom grinding.
When used whole in soups, stews, sauces, and marinades, peppercorns can be placed in a spice bag for easy removal prior to serving. Black peppercorns are used extensively in the manufacturing of food items such as pickles, soups, meats, dressings and baked goods.
White pepper is simply black pepper without the dark outer part of its skin. Black peppercorns are soaked in water, and then are washed and mechanically rubbed to remove the dark skin, then crushed. The mash is dried and then powdered. White pepper is less pungent than black and is used to flavor white sauces, soups, potatoes, spreads, or where black pepper specks would not be desirable.
Pink peppercorns are not pepper at all but rather a dried berry of the Baies rose plant from Madagascar. Imported from France, they are freeze-dried or packed in brine or water and used primarily in nouveau cuisine dishes.
Red peppercorns resemble the wild chile pepper, and are the dried form of peppercorns in their red stage. They are usually found in mixtures of variously colored peppercorns.
Red pepper is the ground version of Cayenne and other red chiles.
Brown peppercorns, known as prickly-ash, are not of the Piper genus but rather are the fruit of shrubs of the various species of Zanthoxylum. The brown or black seeds are also marketed under the name "Sichuan pepper" or "Chinese pepper" and are highly aromatic with hints of citrus. They were the only heat in Sichuan cooking before the arrival of chile peppers in the late 1500s.
Pepper...the most popular spice.