Along with salt, peppercorns are ubiquitous in cooking. This integral spice is added to dishes of all cuisines. But not all pepper is the same.
Once so precious they were used as currency, peppercorns come in distinct colours – black, green, white and pink (although pink is not really a peppercorn). Sichuan pepper and long pepper round out the list.
Most of the black peppercorns we buy are indistinct from one another. There are many inexpensive varieties, but if you want a more intense flavour and aroma, look for the more expensive Tellicherry, my favourite. They are left longer on the vine to develop size and flavour. Any peppercorn broader than 4.25 millimetres is considered a Tellicherry. Peppercorns are picked green then left to dry in the sun until they blacken. When cracked, they add a singular spiciness to dishes. You will find you need less pepper when you use Tellicherry.
Green peppercorns are picked a little earlier in the season. Instead of sun drying, they are usually brined to preserve their flavour. Some are dried while they are still green. You find them in pepper mixes. Both dried and brined have a softer, less intense flavour than black. They are often used in finishing sauces, particularly the cream sauce served with steak au poivre.
White is the most interesting pepper. When the peppercorns are picked, they are briefly soaked in water to remove their skin. Inside is nestled a perfect creamy white berry, the white peppercorn. Its taste is unique, as it is earthy and milder than black pepper. White peppercorns are widely used in French cooking, especially with light- or white-coloured foods so that the look is not marred by black specks. Asian food often uses white peppercorns, too.
Pink peppercorns are not really peppercorns, but they look the same and have the same spicy taste. They come from a shrub not a vine. They are fruity with a peppery edge and add a pinky glow to dishes.
Sichuan peppers, which are having a renaissance, are not really peppercorns but they are a small, dried pepper. They have a mouth-filling taste that starts out mild but finishes with tingly notes on your tongue. They have been popularized with the rise of Sichuan cooking and the cooking of the western provinces of China, such as Shaanxi. They are also an important ingredient in five-spice powder.
Long pepper was the first pepper used in Europe until the 14th century, when black peppercorns came into vogue and were much cheaper. They are hotter than black pepper and they must be ground before using. African, Indian and Balinese cooking uses long peppers.
All peppercorns should be freshly ground; they lose their flavour after grinding. Have a pepper mill or two for grinding assorted or different colours. The Peugeot peppermills are the best, they grind evenly and smoothly, they have classic shapes and they last a lifetime as evidenced by three that I have had for 40 years.
One last tip: If you have white or light sauces, white pepper looks much better than black.
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