A Primer on Peppercorns

At MorningStar Kitchen we offer a wide range of peppercorns for purchase. But since we understand that there is a fair amount of confusion over the different types available today – along with how to use them – we think it’s important for you to understand some of the subtleties that exist between peppers. So we decided to give you this Primer on Peppercorns.

Not so long ago, the only pepper cooks were able to find was that powdery black version sold in tin cans, ready to shake into every recipe. If we were lucky, we might find equally powdery, ground white pepper for use in white sauces. Compared to the peppercorns we have become familiar with today, those earlier versions were ran from bland to just plain flavorless.

Over time, spice jars filled with black peppercorns began to appear in the spice aisles of grocery stores. Fancy (and expensive) pepper grinders soon appeared in specialty stores, and discerning cooks began to finish off salads, vegetables, and sauces with a few twists of the pepper grinder.

With the opening of global markets, new types of peppercorns have almost become commonplace in our pantries: peppers like Tellicherry black, Szechuan; and green, pink, and white peppercorns. Today, even smoked peppers and specialty pepper blends are available to add nuances we’ve never experienced in our recipes before.

With so many choices in our marketplace today, some confusion exists as to which pepper or peppers to use in our personal repertoires. The following discussion should prove to be helpful. But before we begin, we at MorningStar Kitchen strongly suggest that – no matter which pepper you choose for a recipe – you wait until you are ready to use before grinding it. This will ensure the freshest flavor. For convenience, you might also consider having several different grinders at your disposal – one for each type of pepper.

Essentially, white, black and green peppercorns are the same berries that are harvested from at various stages of growth. The best peppercorns are grown in clusters like grapes on vines along the Malabar coast of India.

Green peppercorns are young when they are picked and dehydrated or preserved, resulting in a mild, somewhat tart flavor. Black peppercorns are the same berries that have been left on the vine to fully mature and develop a bolder flavor. White peppercorns are the black berries that have been soaked to remove the outer casing, giving them a more intense flavor, with a slightly fermented taste and smell from the soaking process.

Pink peppercorns and Szechuan peppercorns are not true peppercorns. Pink peppercorns are soft, fragile berries grown on a tree in Brazil. They have a sweet-sharp flavor. Szechuan pepper is a Chinese tree berry that possesses a pungent, cold flavor instead of the usual heat of a peppercorn.

In order to gain a real understanding of the variations available to us, let’s consider the following:

Green Peppercorn berries are picked before they fully ripen, so their flavor is clean and zesty, rather than the hot fruitiness of black pepper. These brittle peppercorns can be used whole in many dishes and marinades, or easily pulverized for cream sauces and curries. Milder than black pepper, green peppercorns are particularly popular in French cooking. At Morningstar Kitchen we prefer green peppercorns for many of our garden-fresh sautés – like our Sicilian Chicken – and sauces. We particularly like it in some of our tomato based recipes like our Puttanesca Sauce.

Black Peppercorns are considered by many to be the finest peppercorns in the world. They are picked from the vine just before they have fully ripened. The berries turn black during the drying process, creating a robust flavor that could almost be described as fruity, At MorningStar Kitchen we recommend this pepper for use as the all-purpose pepper in your kitchen.

White Peppercorns might be considered the final stop in the ‘pepper process.’ The flavor of these berries is quite different from that of black peppercorns, as they are more mellow and possess a slightly fermented taste that results from the soaking process. Most European cooks prefer white pepper over black. In the United States, ground white pepper is recommended particularly for use in white and light colored sauces, as it blends in visually while still offering a unique, yet peppery, flavor.

Pink Peppercorns have a distinctly peppery taste, but unlike the other peppercorns we’re now accustomed to using, these are berries are not grown on vines, nor are they grown in India. These are the berries of a tree grown in Brazil which is a relative of the cashew and mango trees, and must therefore be used judiciously, as they may trigger an allergic reaction in people with sensitivities to tree nuts. (For this reason, MorningStar Kitchen only sells its pink peppercorns separately, and never in blends.)

The berries of this tree turn bright red before they are harvested in the fall. Once dried, add a fruity and peppery flavor that adds flare to many seafood, poultry, and game dishes.

Since they are too soft to grind by themselves in a peppermill, they are best when ground with a mortar and pestle or sprinkled whole into dishes. The may also be sautéed and used as a garnish.

Szechuan Peppercorns have returned to our markets after a long absence. These peppercorns are not related to the green, black, and white versions native to India. Rather, they are the berry of the Mountain Ash tree grown in the Sichuan (also known as Szechuan) province of China.

Until very recently there was a long-standing ban on the importation of this pepper because it carried a citrus canker bacterial disease that could potentially harm the foliage of citrus crops in the U.S. It was never an issue of harm in human consumption. The USDA and FDA have now lifted the ban, provided the peppercorns are properly heated to which kill the bacteria before importation.

Before the introduction of the chili pepper into Asian cultures, Szechuan pepper was used along with ginger to give heat to many dishes. Today, that heat is produced primarily by the red chili pepper. However, Szechuan pepper is still called for in many traditional Chinese recipes.

The flavor of Szechuan pepper is unique in that it is aromatic and flavorful, without being hot. It has a numbing property that produces a light tingling sensation in the mouth.

If you’re wanting to go even further, we suggest that you check out some of our recipes which will give you more insight into how and when to use the different types of peppercorns.

To find recipes or purchase peppers, visit us online at: www.morningstarkitchen.com

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