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Pungent Spices - Pepper - Piper nigrum

DK PublishingDK Publishing 2/07/2014 DKBooks
© Provided by DKBooks

© Provided by DKBooks

© Provided by DKBooks

© Provided by DKBooks

© Provided by DKBooks

© Provided by DKBooks

© Provided by DKBooks

© Provided by DKBooks

© Provided by DKBooks

Pepper - Piper nigrum

The history of the spice trade is essentially about the quest for pepper. Peppercorns and long pepper from India’s Malabar coast reached Europe at least 3,000 years ago; trade routes were fiercely protected, empires were built and destroyed because of it. In 408AD the Goths demanded pepper as part of their tribute when they laid siege to Rome; later, pepper was traded ounce for ounce for gold, and used as currency to pay rents, dowries, and taxes. In volume and value pepper remains the most important spice. India, Indonesia, Brazil, Malaysia, and Vietnam are the main producers.

Pepper has different characteristics in different places of origin and is therefore classified according to where it is grown. Broadly speaking, the flavor of pepper is determined by its essential oil content, while its content of the alkaloid piperine accounts for its bite. Black pepper has both aroma and pungency. White pepper contains less essential oil than black because the oil is present in the hull and is removed in cleaning; that also explains why white pepper, although pungent, has little aroma. Over time the strength of the flavor compounds in the essential oil diminishes.

The essential oil and piperine content varies according to the origins of the pepper. Pepper of the best quality is Indian Malabar; it has a fruity aroma and a clean bite. Tellicherry is the grade with the largest berries. Indonesian lampong pepper has more piperine and less essential oil, so it is more pungent than aromatic; the berries are smaller and gray-black in color. Sarawak pepper from Malaysia has a milder aroma than Indonesian berries, but is hot and biting. Brazilian pepper has a low piperine content and is rather bland. Vietnamese is light in color and mild.

Culinary uses

Pepper is neither sweet nor savory, merely pungent. Although mostly used in savory foods, it can be used with fruits and in some sweet breads and cakes. It brings out the flavor of other spices and retains its own flavor well during cooking.

The aroma of black pepper can be detected in foods all round the world. Even the chili lovers of Latin America and southern Asia reach for the peppercorns to flavor cooking liquids, stocks, salad dressings, and sauces, or crush them to add to spice mixtures and marinades. Ground pepper is rubbed on fish and meat to be grilled or baked; it flavors rich stews and curries; and it is used to season simple buttered vegetables and smoked fish.

White pepper is used in pale sauces and cream soups to preserve their attractive appearance. Use it judiciously because the bite is sharp.

In France, mignonette pepper, a mixture consisting of black and white peppercorns, black for aroma and white for strength, is often used.

Rinse brined peppercorns before using. Green pepper combines beautifully with sweeter spices, such as cinnamon, ginger, bay, fennel seed, and lemon grass, to flavor pork, chicken (rub butter mixed with crushed peppercorns and ginger under the skin before roasting), lobster, crab, and fish, especially salmon. It also makes an excellent steak au poivre and combines well with Dijon mustard. Red peppercorns can be used in similar ways.

Essential to baharat, berbere, garam masala, ras el hanout, quatre épices.

Good with most foods.

Combines well with basil, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coconut milk, coriander, cumin, garlic, ginger, lemon, lime, nutmeg, parsley, rosemary, thyme, turmeric.

Tasting notes

Black pepper has a fine, fruity, pungent fragrance with warm, woody, and lemony notes. The taste is hot and biting with a clean, penetrating aftertaste. White pepper is less aromatic, and can smell musty, but it has a sharp pungency with a sweetish afternote.

Parts used

Immature and ripe fruits.

Buying and storing

Sun-drying is preferable for peppercorns: if dried at high temperatures in artificial heat some of the volatile oils are lost. Black and white pepper rapidly lose their aroma and flavor when ground, so it is best to buy whole berries and grind in a pepper mill or crush in a mortar, as needed. In airtight containers pepper-corns will keep for a year.


To produce black pepper, immature green berries are picked, briefly fermented, and then dried. During drying the pepper shrivels, becomes wrinkled, and turns black or dark brown. For white peppercorns, berries are picked when yellowish-red and almost ripe, then soaked to soften and loosen the outer skin. Once this is removed they are rinsed and sun-dried.

Whole peppercorns

Large, uniform, dark brown to black peppercorns command the highest price. Aroma and flavor are more important than pungency. The best white pepper is considered to be Muntok from Indonesia.

Crushed pepper

Crushed peppercorns can be pressed into steaks to be grilled, and release their flavors in marinades.

Ground pepper

Ground white pepper is more attractive in creamy sauces than black.

Red peppercorns

Red or pink peppercorns are fully ripe fruits, usually available preserved in brine or vinegar. They have a soft outer shell with a delicate, almost sweet, fruity taste. The inner core provides a moderate, lingering heat.

Green peppercorns

Green pepper has a light aroma, and an agreeable, fresh pungency; it is not overpoweringly hot. Green peppercorns are preserved by freeze-drying or dehydration, or packed in brine or vinegar. Keep fresh green and red pepper berries in the refrigerator.

Mignonette pepper

Black and white P. nigrum peppercorns are combined in this French seasoning.

Long pepper - P. longum and P. retrofactum

The long pepper species P. longum and P. retrofactum originated in India and Indonesia respectively. Long pepper is mostly used in Asia, East Africa, and North Africa in slow-cooked dishes and pickles. The spikes of minute fruits are harvested green and sun-dried, when they resemble gray-black catkins. Long pepper is usually used whole. It smells sweetly fragrant, and initially resembles black pepper in taste, but it has a biting, numbing aftertaste. Indonesian long pepper is slightly longer and more pungent than the Indian.

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