Peppercorns are berries that grow on the Piperaceae flowering vine called Piper nigrum. It is the most traded and most widely-used spice in the world that has been in existence since at least 2000 BC. In fact, it was the “King of Spices.” And although peppercorns are native to the state of Kerala in India, they also thrive in tropical regions such as Southeast Asia. Thus, peppercorns might come in many forms. But, all of them offer a distinctive pungency. Certainly, it can take every dish on a whole nother level, whether it’d be sweet, savory, hot, or cold.
- Black peppercorns were presumed to be used as part of mummification in ancient Egypt; they were once stuffed into pharaoh Ramesses II’s nostrils when he was mummified.
- Peppercorns were considered to be a luxury item in Europe back in the early days; they were valued the same as gold, silver, hides, and silk.
- 80% of the recipes found in Apicius, an ancient Roman cookbook that was written in 4 AD, was black pepper.
- The world’s largest cultivator, producer, and exporter of peppercorn is Vietnam. It is then followed by India, Brazil, and Indonesia.
- Peppercorns, especially the freshly ground ones, will definitely make you sneeze.
- Peppercorns have many health benefits; it is an antibacterial, an antioxidant, a carminative, and a stomach acid stimulator. It also helps in controlling blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Plus, it can also improve brain function; it helps alleviate degenerative brain condition symptoms such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
Peppercorns Buying Guide
Since peppercorns can be easily found in your favorite grocery stores and online shops, it might be helpful to know the differences in each variety. Black, green, red, and white peppercorns all come from the same plant; they just differ on how they were treated. Hence, here are the different types of peppercorns and its uses:
- Black peppercorns – the most common variety, black peppercorns are green peppercorns that are sun-dried and cooked. It provides the strongest and most pungent flavor. Thus, it is perfect to be used as a finishing seasoning, along with salt. Moreover, black peppercorns includes the following subvariety:
- Tellicherry and Malabar – A rich, sweet, fruity, and well-rounded black peppercorn that is mostly grown in Malabar Coast, India.
- Lampong and Muntok Pepper – A slow-burning, smokey, and citrusy black peppercorn that is grown in Indonesia.
- Green peppercorns – green is the original color of peppercorns when they are unripe. It is usually harvested at this stage but unlike the other variants, green peppercorns are treated with preservatives like sulfur dioxide, brine, or vinegar to slow down the enzymes that darken their skins. That being said, green peppercorns in brine have a fresher taste but it is slightly tart with a lesser heat and aroma. Therefore, this variety is ideally used to flavor sauces for meat specialties.
- Red peppercorns – these are green peppercorns that are fully ripened and treated to preserve its color. This is the most expensive variety as they take the longest time to mature. Thus, red pepper provides a sweeter heat compared to its counterparts and it is ideally used in desserts and other sweet dishes.
- White peppercorns – these are black or red peppercorns that are soaked in liquid to soften its skin so that it can easily be removed, leaving just the white seed which is then dried. White peppercorn is famous in Asian cuisine where sauces and dishes are usually light-colored. Black or colored pepper becomes virtually unappealing; thus, white pepper is the best choice. Nevertheless, white peppercorns have a less pungent taste and are ideally used to season light-colored sauces and food specialties.
Many other peppercorns are also available in the market but they don’t come from the same plant. Among these are the following:
- Pink peppercorns – these are delicate berries from a South American shrub commonly known as Peruvian Pepper Tree and Brazilian Pepper Tree. It has fruity, floral, and spicy flavor notes that work best in garnishes, jellies, and pastries.
- Cubeb Pepper or Piper Cubeba – also known as tailed pepper. They have the same pungency as pepper and allspice with a slightly woody aroma. This pepper is ideal for cocktails.
- Grains of Paradise – also known as Guinea Grains, African pepper, and Alligator pepper. They look like peppercorns but they actually belong to the family of ginger. Its complex flavor combination of pepper, cardamom, lemon, ginger, and cloves makes this spice popular in international cuisine.
- Long pepper – this pepper is native to India as well, but it is more pungent than black peppercorns, making it popular to be used in spicy vegetable pickles and cheese fondues.
- Sichuan pepper – this pepper is native to the Sichuan province of China. Although this pepper tends to numb your tongue when you bite it, it has a very pleasant anise aroma and a sweet fresh citrus taste, making it ideal to be used in meats and stir-fries.
- Vietnamese peppercorns – this pepper is vibrant with strong and spicy notes of tobacco.
- Wayanad peppercorns – also from India, this pepper has a warm spiciness and a full-rounded flavor.
- Lemon pepper mix – a blend of dry and roasted peppercorns, garlic, coriander, thyme, onion powder, and lemon powder.
- Garlic pepper – a blend of dehydrated black pepper, garlic, and bell peppers. Paprika, brown sugar, onion powder, salt, dried parsley, and cumin are sometimes added for a more earthy undertone. Nevertheless, this blend works great in pizzas, pasta sauces, grilled meat, vegetables, and mashed potatoes.
- Mixed peppercorns – a pleasantly vibrant blend of different peppercorns such as black, white, green, pink, and allspice.
- Exotic mixed peppercorns – mixed peppercorns with the addition of cubeb, grains of paradise, and Sichuan peppercorns.
- Gourmet peppercorns selection – exotic mixed peppercorns with the addition of Tellicherry black peppercorns.
Peppercorns Production & Farming in Texas
Peppercorn plants thrive on a well-draining soil situated in warm climates with heavy and frequent rainfall. Thus, it is possible to grow peppercorn plants in the state of Texas. However, only a few farmers with greenhouses plant this spice since Texans are more into growing chili peppers. Nevertheless, peppercorn grows in thin and long vines, and they are clustered into groups that look like grapes. It is harvested when it’s still green and unripe. Then, it is cooked and sun-dried until its color darkens and its skin starts to contract and wrinkle.
Pesticides, additives, and chemicals:
Fortunately, store-bought whole and ground peppercorns do not contain anything else besides the peppercorn itself. However, be careful with buying commercial pepper sauces, as they are the ones who have the following additives:
- MSG – Monosodium Glutamate is used to enhance the flavor of almost any product. It is the one responsible for creating that umami flavor. Although it is generally classified as safe to consume, it can cause headaches, flushing, palpitations, sweating, nausea, numbness, and weakness to some people. It allegedly can cause asthma, brain damages, and even cancer; however, these allegations remained controversial.
- Sodium – Although sodium is a natural food that balances our body fluids, it can cause harm when consumed past its RDA.
- Modified Food Starch – This additive is usually made with wheat, potato, corn, or tapioca. It acts as a binding agent, thickener, stabilizer, and preservative. This additive offers empty calories – they provide no nutritional value, yet it adds a considerable amount of carbohydrates which can promote weight gain. This ingredient should also be avoided by someone who is gluten intolerant.
- High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) – This artificial sweetener never does any good to our health. Too much consumption of this additive can lead to diabetes, heart disease, fatty liver disease, obesity, and other serious diseases.
Peppercorns are packaged in a variety of ways. It is mostly distributed as a pepper mill, where a grinder is attached so that you can freshly ground your peppercorns anytime. Green peppercorns, on another note, are sometimes packaged and sold in cans along with its brine similar to pickles. Other packaging containers include pet bottles, jars, tubs, glass and plastic containers, pouches, and single-use packets.
Peppercorns, regardless of their kind or color, should be slightly heated to activate its essential oils. This practice is traditionally done to intensify the peppery flavors of each dish. Moreover, peppercorns are usually eaten as a finishing condiment, and works well on almost all the dishes from steaks, seafood, and poultry to salads, stir-fry vegetables, marinades, sauces, and more.
Peppercorns, in its dry form, are best kept in a sealed and air-tight container stored in a cool and dry area far from humid and hot zones like stoves, grills, and ovens to prolong their shelf life. This spice practically lasts forever, that’s why it doesn’t have an expiration date. However, its flavor weakens over time. Just adjust your recipe and add more in case your peppercorns are quite old. Peppercorns that come in brine, like green peppercorns, do not need to be refrigerated until it is opened. It can last up to four years on the counter sealed and unopened. Upon opening, transfer the contents into an air-tight container and keep it in the refrigerator.
Make your own pepper sauce:
Now, it’s time to level up our peppercorns and turn them into something more delectable. Below is a quick recipe for a pepper barbecue sauce that all Texans certainly love. You can make this ahead of time and store it for later use – it can last for up to one month in the refrigerator! This sauce goes well on steaks, seafood, kebabs, eggs, vegetables, and salads. It can also be used as a marinade for all your meats.
Yield: 500 ml
- 1 tbsp butter
- 4 tbsp onion, minced
- 2-4 tbsp garlic, minced
- 8 tbsp tomato sauce
- 8 tbsp tomato catsup
- 4 tbsp molasses
- 4 tbsp apple cider vinegar
- 3 tbsp coarsely ground black pepper
- 2 tbsp lemon juice
- 1 tbsp brown sugar
- 1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
- 1 tbsp chili powder
- 1 tsp cayenne pepper
- ½ tsp cumin
- Sauté onions and garlic in butter until it is fragrant and slightly caramelized.
- Add the rest of the ingredients and turn up the heat to high. When the mixture boils, lower down the heat and finally simmer it for 25 minutes until the sauce is slightly reduced and thick.
- Cool the sauce down to room temperature and transfer it into sealed and air-tight jars or containers using a funnel for easy pouring.
- Store in the refrigerator.