Spices 101: What is Pepper?
Go to your dining table right now. Go look at your place setting. What are the two things that always must be there. That’s right salt, and pepper. And don’t tell me you don’t have salt and pepper, because everybody knows a real dining table’s gotta have salt and pepper shakers. If you don’t have ’em, buy ’em. But hey, what is salt and pepper, exactly?
Actually I take that back, everyone knows what salt is. It’s salt. It’s made of sodium and chlorine and turns into a cool, white crystal rock thing that makes all food taste better. But! Let’s be real, everyone here has seen pepper before, but most people like yourself are probably dying to know what it really is. Well, I’m glad you asked.
To be serious, pepper is one of the few foodstuffs that you can count on being an ingredient in virtually EVERYTHING. That, plus salt, and possibly garlic or (for sweets) sugar, are in this elite group of ingredients that you will use in almost everything you cook. Unlike salt and sugar in that list, pepper doesn’t really get called out for health concerns either. Obviously, a little sugar and salt aren’t going to hurt you, since like almost anything you put in your body, they’re harmless in moderation. But pepper meanwhile, as far as I know, health-nuts have not found any reason to criticize pepper yet. Though actually I’m probably jinxing myself, they’ll find something to complain about soon enough.
Pepper, as it’s commonly called, is in actuality a fruit. Weird, right? It’s not some sort of magic mineral or root or seed, it’s legit just a berry. To be more specific or accurate, it’s really referred to as black pepper, and the individual fruits are called peppercorns. Are you ready to have your mind blown? Peppercorns start off as little green berries that almost look like peas. They grow in bundles on the vine of peppercorn plants. Check this shit out:
Compare that to what we all know pepper as, and yeah, it’s pretty weird. But the process involved in turning those into the pepper we all know and love is pretty simple. After the fruits are picked off the vine, they’re cooked in hot water, and then dried at hot, hot temperatures. As a result of the drying process, they become hard and crunchy, and turn brown or black in color. At this point, you’re left with the classic pepper ready to be added to foods.
Interestingly enough, we know pepper to have its classic spicy zing. Yet that spiciness is not the same kind of heat that you get from chili peppers like jalapenos or habaneros, which get their spiciness from the chemical capsaicin. Instead, peppercorns have a bit of a hot flavor to them due to a substance they have known as piperine. It activates the same pain/taste receptors in your tongue that capsaicin does, so really piperine is just sorta like capsaicin’s less popular but still really cool cousin. Though admittedly, the fact black pepper is called, well, pepper, despite being different from chili peppers, is pretty confusing. Though unlike chili peppers, the spicy compound of piperine has one unique trait: it has the super-cartoon trait of making people sneeze for whatever reason.
As mentioned above, black pepper gets used in virtually everything you cook. In small quantities it doesn’t even taste spicy, and instead just gives a nice, dark pungency to break up the homogeny of combining other ingredients. Like its partner in crime, salt, the majority of the time a dish is “missing something” it just probably needs a little black pepper. Beyond smaller concentrations, you can actually harness its true flavor for more complex applications. When you use a lot of it, it can certainly give dishes a little bit of heat. And what’s even better is that peppercorns have a really great flavor on their own, though that’s where pepper grinders and cracked pepper come in. When you grind or crack pepper on the spot, it releases nice, fresh piperine, which has a zesty, fruity flavor to it, in addition to its spiciness. And on top of that, pepper even gets used as the simplest of garnishes. Light-colored foods benefit from having the little black speckles added onto them to give some contrast to their color.
While pepper is confusing enough in that it’s not really a pepper, it gets even more confusing in that despite having the common name of ‘black pepper’ there’s actually quite a few varieties of it that aren’t black. You may have heard of or seen what’s called ‘rainbow pepper’, which is actually just a blend of different types of peppercorns. Black is the standard we already discussed, then there’s green which is unripened but then gets preserved and dried quickly without drying, so it avoids becoming black. There’s also white peppercorns which have their flesh hulled and removed, leaving behind the core of the peppercorn, which is white in color. There’s also grey and brown varieties too, as well as red peppercorns which add to the confusion even more. Red/orange peppercorns do exist, and are preserved through brining, but the more common pink peppercorns are actually a whole different type of plant berries which look and taste similar, known as the Brazilian pepper tree.
Let’s be real here. For the MOST part, they all taste really similar and unless you’re getting real nitty-gritty with your cooking, you only need to worry about the standard black peppercorn.
- As you can see in the pic above, pepper can be used a few different ways depending on what you need it to do. The first, your average everyday pepper you find on the table in a shaker, is just finely ground black pepper. It’s like salt. You sprinkle it onto your food as you eat it, to accent it.
- Next up is freshly ground pepper from a mill. It’s still pretty fine, but you can see there’s some larger chunks. To explain in simplest terms, mills are usually just grinding machines, with a canister you load the peppercorns into. (FTR, we have a pepper mill that’s Santa Claus wearing a baking outfit. But he’s so good at grinding pepper that we leave it out all year long). You can usually adjust how big the pepper gets ground into. Finer yields a more subtle flavor, while coarser pepper has a more pronounced flavor, and a little bit of heat to it. This is frequently used in dry rubs and seasonings and what you’re best off using if a recipe calls for pepper.
- The next one is cracked black pepper. This one is interesting because it sounds really fancy. It’s one of those things you hear at restaurants that sounds like this mystical, fancy thing that you have to pay a lot of money for. But actually, cracked black pepper is just, well, it’s just really coarse chunks of peppercorns. It’s the same thing as table pepper, just bigger and chunkier and with a pretty strong pepper flavor. Cracked pepper isn’t as commonly used as ground pepper, but you do see it in recipes where pepper is like, the star attraction. When something is meant to taste like peppercorns, you’re gonna be using cracked black pepper.
- Lastly, on the right, is whole black peppercorns. Like cracked pepper, it sounds like something pricey and fancy, but really you can find them pretty cheap at any grocery store. These are what I mentioned earlier; they’re just whole peppercorn fruits, dried. These don’t have as much application as the rest. You can totally eat them, but they are very crunchy, and do have a bit of heat to them. You’ll usually only be using these in dishes meant for hardcore pepper lovers, or in dishes where you just want to infuse the pepper flavor into the food slowly over time such as soups or roasts.
It’s always interesting learning new, in-depth stuff about everyday, ordinary items. If you wanna go over some more kitchen essentials, why not read up on our checklist for all the basic utensils we recommend every kitchen stock?