There’s a ton to know about that seemingly innocuous, common kitchen spice, pepper. Many home cooks have upgraded their kitchen equipment across the board, buying gorgeous Dutch ovens and stand mixers. Yet they haven’t touched their dusty drawers of spices. And if you still have that little box of pepper kicking around, it’s time to toss that guy into the garbage. Why? Read on.
1. How to Choose Pepper
Most cooks can get away with simply buying whole black peppercorns. Either buy them separately from the grinder, or buy a grinder that comes containing them. It’s best to avoid pre-ground peppercorns, which will lose its potency after a matter of months. (It doesn’t arrive at your home all that peppery, to start with, either!)
2. Types of Peppercorns
Nowadays, unusual peppercorn varieties are much more common than they were, say, 20 years ago. Once upon a time, home cooks were content with black pepper and white pepper. Black peppercorns are still far and away the most common, with varieties such as Tellicherry and Lampong considered to be among the best. Ivory-hued peppercorns are slightly milder than black. They are excellent for adding invisible bite to a creamy cauliflower soup, a béchamel sauce, or any Italian sauce in which you don’t want dark specks of pepper.
Then there are green and pink peppercorns. The former are soft, underripe berries typically preserved in brine and sold in jars or cans. Pink peppercorns are not technically peppercorns at all; they’re the dried berries of the Baies rose plant. They’re pungent, slightly sweet and often a little more expensive than black peppercorns.
3. How to Cook with Pepper
Salt and pepper mills are on most American tables for a good reason, but resist the temptation to over-pepper a dish before serving it. Some people (especially children) are very sensitive to its “spicy” flavor profile.
Whole peppercorns are a key element in making broth, stocks, and some marinades. They’re hugely important for a great steak, a pile of ribs, or compound butters for pork chops or chicken. Sometimes a bracing flavor profile is what you want, and that’s when this spice really shines.
There’s a reason that, in the 15th century, pepper was the dominant reason Europeans launched sailing expeditions to the “Far East.” It’s worth a trip, thanks to its bite, pungency, and not-too-much heat. Just taste as you go, whether you’re adding it early or as a kicky finishing note.