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Peppercorns 101

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It wasn't that long ago that I made my first curry, grinding my own spices.  Plus my little kitchen has become more crowded with new appliances (a spice grinder, a cumbersome 7-quart Crock Pot, plus my first pressure cooker).  With the curry I also collected little jars and plastic bags filled with new spices.

Conventional wisdom is that we should regularly replace and refresh our spices but the fact is that I rarely do.  As a result there are some spices that sit on my shelf for years.  Years.  Like that jar of whole cloves that endlessly supplies the occasional bouquet garni, two or three cloves at a time.  I will never use it up and I'm too much of a Yankee to discard and replace.  Or nutmeg.  Why can't we buy a single nutmeg instead of a jar's worth?  At the rate I use nutmeg I'll never get to the last one, which will be tasteless by then anyway.

But then there are only four herbs or spices that I regularly replace and that's only because I use them so often that I run out:  dried oregano, cinnamon, dried red pepper flakes, and peppercorns.  There's not a lot of variety when restocking the first three, but as I discovered on my last visit to Kalustyan's, my favorite spice store, buying peppercorns can be an exotic adventure.

The Perfect Peppermill

The first gift my husband gave to "us" as we made our first home together was a French Perfex peppermill.  That was many years ago and I still use it daily.  Unlike the more familiar big wooden peppermills, my aluminum Perfex, at only three and a half inches, is small and very plain.  It was made in Saint-Etienne, France, in a family-owned factory (if you buy a new Perfex today it will come from the same factory).  It has a crank handle and a little chute on its side that gets filled as if it were a coal bin; I use a narrow-tipped grapefruit spoon to shuttle peppercorns into its belly.  The grind is easily adjustable but I seem to have set it right two decades ago, as I can't recall needing to ever fuss with how fine or coarse the pepper becomes passing through its mechanism.

Until Mark gave me the peppermill, I had simply bought ground pepper at the supermarket, not knowing that it could have easily been ground and packaged months, possibly years before they made their way to my kitchen. Pepper dust, I now call it.  I also didn't understand that the pepper flavor is at its best at the moment the peppercorns are ground into bits.  To be adding pre-ground supermarket black pepper to my food -- well, I might as well have been adding dust.

Mark knew better and thus bought us the peppermill.  I felt an obligation to honor it so I headed off to Dean & Deluca to buy my first peppercorns.  But standing in front of their large spice selection, I was clueless.  Shelf after shelf was filled with stacks of the store's distinctive little metal spice tins, each with a label that only confused me further:  Szechuan, Pink Peppercorns, Tellicherry, Half-Cracked Pepper.  I remember choosing the Szechuan on the basis of no knowledge but simply the name, thinking, "hey, Chinese food can be spicy so this must be good."  But when I got home and opened the tin, inside I found deep red and gnarly little bits that had little resemblance to the ordinary black peppercorns I had seen before.  Being afraid of the unfamiliar, I closed the tin and never used them, instead heading to the grocery store where I bought a little glass jar of black peppercorns. 

I am no longer afraid of the pungent taste of Szechuan peppercorns (read on for a little more detail).  But most of all I've learned that if you do not yet use freshly ground pepper in your cooking, doing so is one of the best and simple changes you can make to add significantly better flavor to your food. 

Grind It As You Need It

While TV cooks may have little dishes of ground pepper alongside their little dishes of salt, pre-grinding your pepper is not a good idea.  If you don't believe me, here's a way to prove it.  Grind one-third cup of black pepper (if you do this by hand it will take a while; the alternative is to use a spice grinder).  Let it sit in an open dish for two weeks, which is about the amount of time it would take to use this much pepper in daily cooking.  Now do a smell and taste test:  First take a pinch of the three-week old pepper and place it on a dish.  Give it a sniff and a taste.  Then freshly grind some additional pepper and do the same, comparing the two samples.  The difference in pungency should be significant and the reason is simple -- once ground, the flavor begins to evaporate.  Leave it around for a while sitting in a dish and you'll be adding little bits of black to your food for almost no purpose. 

Here's the point.  Grinding a spice releases its flavor and aroma.  Do it in advance and both will fade.  We use small amounts of pepper in our food so what's the big deal to grind it as we need it?  This way you'll guarantee maximum taste and it takes no more effort.  And I promise you it is the little details in cooking -- like grinding black pepper as you add it to a dish -- that makes the big differences in flavor.

My suggestion is that if you don't have a peppermill, you should buy one and get the best you can afford.  I recommend a hand mill, not an electric one, because it will give you more control. 

Get into the habit of adding freshly ground pepper to your food.  Add a little.  Taste.  Add more if your palate would like more of its liveliness.  Because of the way it boosts flavor, very often adding pepper to our cooking means we can add less salt, which can be a good healthy choice.  We can also add pepper during the cooking and then at the finish.  But always taste first.

Choosing and Cooking With Peppercorns

  • Peppercorns are a global spice and a visit to the pepper aisle in a serious spice market like Kalustyan's or Penzeys will show that.  It was one of the first spices of the Asian spice routes and was used in ancient Egypt, Rome and Greece.  Its botanical history can be traced around the world and today pepper is grown and imported from Indonesia, Brazil, Ecuador, Malaysia, Vietnam, and various parts of India, the most recognized being Tellicherry.
  • What's the difference between black and white pepper?  Both come from the fully ripe berries of the same tropical plant but white pepper has had its outer surface removed.  This means you won't get the little black flecks that come from grinding the black peppercorn.  But you also won't get the full, pungent flavor, much of which is in the black outer layer.
  • And what are green and pink peppercorns?  Green pepper is simply harvested before the berries are fully ripe and then preserved with brine or by freeze-drying.  The taste is still pungent but a bit greener and fresher.
  • As for the pink -- according to Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking, there are two answers.  First, pink pepper or poivre rose, are just-ripened red pepper berries that have been preserved in vinegar.  Pink peppercorns, however, are from the fruits of a Brazilian pepper tree, related to the cashew and mango family and used more in decorations than in food.  
  • Why pepper instead of chilies?  The capsaicin in chilies is about 100 times more powerful than the flavor compound in pepper.  Plus the flavors are really different.  Pepper is more woody and warm, some say more floral and less acidic, than chilies.  In many dishes both will be used -- pepper for complexity and chilies for heat and brightness.
  • In some Asian cuisines, pepper from China or Japan can make a big difference.  Szechuan pepper from China and Sansho pepper from Japan are both pungent and also slightly citrus with a more aggressive taste.  These peppers come from different but related pepper plants and many cooks like to use these distinctive peppers when cooking meats, either as a solitary spice or in a spice mix.

Buying and Storing Peppercorns

  • As with any spice, don't buy pepper in big quantities.  Buy as little as is practical and store the peppercorns whole in a tightly sealed jar in a cool, dark location (it wouldn't hurt to refrigerate them as long as the jar is tightly sealed). 
  • If you buy them in a plastic bag, which is how many spice stores sell spices, transfer them to a covered glass jar after you get them home.
  • While there's nothing wrong with supermarket peppercorns, if you have any reason to think they've been on the shelf for a while, don't buy them.  Freshness makes all the difference in spices and you want to buy from a merchant who has a rapid turnover and restocks frequently.  So if you're wiping supermarket dust off the cap of the jar, put it back on the shelf and buy elsewhere.
  • It's worth the extra trouble to buy all our spices from a specialty market.  If you're in New York that means you should make the trip to a store like Kalustyan's.  If you have another favorite merchant, ask them about freshness.  If you either don't live in New York or have a favorite local spice market, buy from a trusted online merchant.  Both Kalustyan's and Penzeys have excellent online shopping.
  • If you're new to buying peppercorns and don't know how to start, I would recommend black peppercorns from Tellicherry.  Buy them whole, not ground.  If you need a large quantity of ground pepper and don't want the trouble of grinding by hand, you can purchase a coffee grinder for about $20 and keep it dedicated to solely grinding pepper and other spices (unless you want peppered coffee).
  • Some chefs and home cooks also like white peppercorns to use in dishes where you don't want to have little black flecks, such as mashed potatoes or white sauces or a classic white recipe like blanquette de veau.  But it can be inconvenient to either have two peppermills or else switch out black peppercorns for white.  Instead I use a trick I learned in culinary school which is to use Tabasco in place of white pepper.  Before anyone starts shaking a peppermill at me, I know that Tabasco is made from chili peppers and contains salt and vinegar.  But I find white pepper to have such a faded flavor that it adds very little to most dishes.  Tabasco visually disappears in anything to which it's added but it adds heat and as much of a kick as your heavy hand permits.  Plus I only have to have one peppermill in my small city kitchen. 
  • Fill your peppermill and leave it out where you'll remember to use it.

Pepper usually enhances other flavors, but we've got two recipes in which it plays a starring role:  the classic Roman pasta dish cacio e pepe and a hearty toasted barley pilaf.

Here's to spice in cooking and in life!

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