Pepper: The World’s Most Popular Spice

Many people would assume that the most used spice is “salt”. However, salt is actually a mineral, not a spice. This leaves its sidekick ‘pepper’ in the lead for the number one position.

Peppercorns as we know them, are the dried result of the ‘piper nigrum’ berry and have been harvested for thousands of years. In ancient times the value of this pungent spice was even elevated to the degree of being used as trading barter much like currency. The four most popular types of peppercorns that dominate our current food markets are black, white, green and pink.

Black peppercorns are obviously the most prevalent and also the least expensive. They are produced by harvesting the berries before they are fully ripe and drying them. The drying process is what gives them their black hard wrinkled appearance and texture. These are not only the most popular but also the most pungent of the varieties. The best flavour and aroma is obtained by freshly grinding them directly on or in the dish you are preparing. Pre-ground spices always lose their freshness and ability to season as time passes. Logically, fresher is always better.

White peppercorns are derived from the same type of berries that the black peppercorns come from, however they are allowed to mature before harvesting. They are then either soaked or washed in water to remove the outer shell, which produces a white peppercorn with a milder taste. They are frequently utilized to season white sauces to ensure that the appearance of the sauce is not marred with black specs.

Green peppercorns are one of my ultimate favorites in sauces. These peppercorns are harvested when they are still very immature, and either dried or preserved in brine. They offer a more natural temperate flavour, and when brined are very soft and can be eaten whole. These are great for transforming ordinary gravy into a gourmet peppercorn sauce with the help of a jigger of brandy or wine. The dried green peppercorns can be rehydrated to make them pliable to accomplish this same task. They can also be mashed into a paste for different applications.

Pink peppercorns are not actually peppercorns in the same definition as referred to in the above-mentioned examples. They are berries that look similar to the ‘piper nigrum’ berry but are sweeter, milder, and more aromatic. They can ripen to even a dark red in colour before harvesting. These are great in delicately flavoured recipes and offer great presentation as well.
In light of all the choices you have, it should be apparent that pepper is nothing to sneeze at.

Dear Chef Dez:
A sales clerk at a department store told me that I should buy a hand-held pepper mill instead of using a shaker. She said that pepper freshly ground from a pepper mill, is better than pepper that is purchased already ground. I guess this does make sense – is this true? If so, should I buy one of those salt mills too?

Gladys L.
Langley, BC
Dear Gladys:

This is true. Grinding pepper fresh from a mill releases the essential oils and aromatics trapped inside whole peppercorns, and the taste difference is incredible. Like other spices, once ground it is only a matter of time before it becomes stale. Salt mills on the other hand, are more for esthetic appeal. Salt minerals do not have essential oils and thus grinding them fresh will make no difference in taste. The only thing you will gain from using a salt grinder is the unique texture of the irregular shaped crystals falling on your food.

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