Peppercorns 101 – The Basics


Peppercorns 101 – The Basics

About Peppercorns
Pepper is native to India and has been a prized spice since ancient times. Ancient Greeks not only used pepper as a spice, but also as currency and a sacred offering used to honor the gods. It was also used to pay taxes and ransoms. In the Middle Ages, a man’s stockpile of peppercorns was indicative of his wealth.

In ancient times, pepper was also valued because it had some important culinary uses. Not only did it season otherwise bland food, but its spiciness could also mask the flavor of stale or spoiled food. Since there was little way to preserve food, its spoilage was a problem they continually dealt with.

The value of pepper sparked the development of the spice trade, which led to the exploration of undeveloped lands, and also the development of major merchant cities in Europe and the Middle East. Today, the major commercial producers of pepper are India and Indonesia.

Black, green, and white peppercorns are all berries from the same plant, Piper nigrum. The plant is a perennial climbing vine. The different colors reflect different stages of berry development and processing methods. Black peppercorns are picked when they are only half ripe and are about to turn red (as they ripen). They are dried, which causes them to shrivel and turn dark. Green peppercorns are picked when they are still green, before they begin to ripen. After being picked, they are either dried or steeped in brine. White peppercorns are picked when they are very ripe, and are then soaked in a brine to remove their outer shell, leaving just the inner seed. Black peppercorns are the most flavorful and pungent of all the peppercorns. They are available whole or ground.

Pink peppercorns are from a completely different plant, Schinus mole, which is related to ragweed. They are sometimes referred to as false peppercorns since they come from a different plant species. Other “false” peppercorns include the Szechuan, Negro, and Long peppercorns.

Nutrition and Health Benefits
Peppercorns are rich in a variety of nutrients, including Vitamins A (in the form of beta-carotene) and K, calcium, magnesium, potassium, manganese, and phosphorus. It also has antioxidant and antibacterial properties.

Pepper has been used to help alleviate the following ailments: abdominal pain from digestive problems (such as heartburn, indigestion, constipation, and inadequate stomach acids), cold, diabetes, diarrhea, dysentery, flu, fluid retention, mental exhaustion, nicotine cravings, obesity (by stimulating the breakdown of fat cells), pain, poor memory, depression, respiratory mucus, runny nose, sprains, tumors, ulcers, flatulence, nausea, and weakness from coma or vertigo.

Caution: Dosages and applications would vary by ailment and individual characteristics like current medications, age, and weight, so it is advisable to follow the advice of a medical practitioner when using pepper for any medicinal purposes.

When pepper is ingested above usual culinary amounts, it is known to interact with the following drugs: Coumadin, Inderal, Advil, Naprosyn, Tylenol, Neodur, and smoking cessation aids.

Types of Peppercorns
Black Peppercorns.  Black peppercorns come from the same plant as white peppercorns, Piper nigrum. They are harvested before they start to ripen. They are then dried, which causes them to shrivel and turn black. Their flavor is strong and biting, but not necessarily “hot.” The flavor of pepper is primarily due to its content of the compound piperine.

Suggested uses for black peppercorns: Use whole black peppercorns when pickling and making stock. Use cracked black peppercorns on meats and salads. Use ground black peppercorns for everything else.

White Peppercorns. White peppercorns come from the same plant as black peppercorns, Piper nigrum. They are harvested in the middle of the season and first soaked to remove the outer layer, then dried. Removing the outer husk prevents them from turning dark and preserves their light color. The flavor of white pepper is sharper and brighter than that of black pepper. When shopping for white peppercorns, choose ones that are creamy white (but not bleached white). They should be relatively uniform in size and have no specks of gray or black. White pepper will add a little “heat” to whatever food you flavor it with. White pepper goes especially well in soups, stews, marinades, and stir-fries. White peppercorns are sold both whole and ground.

Suggested uses for white peppercorns: Use white peppercorns when cooking white sauces, cream soups, fish, poultry, and grilled meats.

Green Peppercorns. Green peppercorns are the green berries, picked long before they are ripe. They are usually freeze-dried to preserve their smooth skin and green color. They may also be pickled. Green peppercorns have a very tart flavor that does not last long in the mouth.

Suggested uses for green peppercorns: Use green peppercorns when cooking meat sauces, poultry, vegetables, and seafood.

Red Peppercorns. Red peppercorns are also the fruit of the Piper nigrum plant. However, red peppercorns are fully ripened on the vine. They have a sweet, mellow flavor when compared with their black counterparts. True red peppercorns are rarely found in the United States. Most recipes calling for red peppers are referring to ground cayenne or red chiles.

Pink (Preserved Red) Peppercorns. Preserved red peppercorns are rarely found in the United States. They are red peppercorns of the Piper nigrum plant that were preserved in a brine. They are soft, so they are typically put in recipes whole. They are sometimes used in egg dishes and salads.

Blends and Combinations of Peppercorns. When black and green peppercorns are combined, they will add more of a “bite” to a dish. When black and white peppercorns are combined, the flavor of pepper will linger longer.

Lemon Pepper. Sometimes pepper is combined with other ingredients to lend specific flavors to foods. Lemon pepper is one example that is often added to chicken or fish.

The following are considered to be “false peppers” since they aren’t harvested from the Piper nigrum vine, and their flavors are a little different than traditional pepper.

Sichuan or Szechuan Pepper. This pepper is made from the berries of a prickly Ash tree native to China. They are commonly used in many Chinese and Japanese dishes. They are spicier than pepper from the Piper nigum vine.

Negro Pepper. This type of pepper is grown in Ghana and Malawi (Africa). Like black pepper, the fruit is dried in the sun. It has a strong flavor but leaves a bitter aftertaste, so it is not usually substituted for black pepper.

Long Pepper. Long pepper, Piper longum, has fruit about one inch long with a lot of tiny black and gray seeds. The flavor is that of a mild pepper and ginger combination. It is used in sweet hot dishes where the flavor of ginger is accented. This pepper is sometimes used on fresh fruit, coleslaw, and other fresh foods since cooking dilutes the flavor. It is not considered to be a good substitute for black pepper.

Pink Peppercorns (Shinus molle). These peppercorns are harvested from a different plant than traditional pepper, so they are not considered to be a true pepper. When eaten, these peppercorns have a peppery flavor that turns sweet. It is not a good substitute for traditional pepper. However, in Madagascar, Mexico, and Australia, where it is grown, it is commonly used to flavor vegetables and seafood. Importantly, this type of pepper can cause allergic reactions, especially in children. So, use it with caution if you’re not sure about potential reactions.

How to Select Pepper
Pepper is available whole, cracked, ground, and brined. For the best flavor when using dried pepper, opt for whole peppercorns and grind it yourself as needed with a pepper mill or spice grinder.  

How to Store
Store pepper in a tightly sealed container, preferably glass. Keep it in a cool, dry, dark place. Whole peppercorns will stay fresh for about 4 years, but will keep almost indefinitely even though their flavor may diminish over time. Ground pepper will stay fresh for about three months. Although not necessary, peppercorns may be stored in the freezer, but bear in mind that its flavor will be more pronounced after being frozen.

Quick Ideas and Tips for Using Pepper
* The flavor of ground pepper will diminish after being cooked for a long time. So, for best flavor, add pepper toward the end of cooking time.

* For fresh pepper flavor, keep a pepper mill on the table so it can be added directly to your plate.

* For a simple salad dressing, combine olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and freshly ground pepper.

* Pepper has been used as an insecticide. Sprinkle pepper around non-garden areas to keep insects out. You could also mix a teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper with one quart of warm water. Spray it on plants to kill ants, potato bugs, and silverfish.

* To tell if peppercorns are fresh, simply smell them. If they have lost their aroma, they are stale and won’t have a strong flavor. You could also crush a couple peppercorns and taste them. If they have lost their zest, they can still be used, but won’t provide a lot of flavor.

* About 1/8 teaspoon of ground pepper is equivalent to five turns on a typical pepper grinder.

* Add a few peppercorns to your ground pepper shaker to help keep it from clogging up.

* Freezing peppercorns enhances its flavor.

* Ground pepper will hold its flavor for about 3 months. It will dwindle thereafter. The flavor of whole peppercorns will last almost indefinitely.

* For the best pepper flavor, buy whole peppercorns and grind it as needed.

* Whole peppercorns can add flavor to marinades, poached fish, and boiled meats. Suggested amounts are: 10 to 12 whole peppercorns in marinades, 4 to 6 whole peppercorns in poaching liquid, 1 to 2 whole peppercorns when poaching fish, and 8 to 10 whole peppercorns when boiling meat.

Herbs and Spices That Go Well with Pepper
Allspice, basil, bay leaf, caraway, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, ginger, lemongrass, mustard, nutmeg, oregano, paprika, parsley, rosemary, sage, salt, tarragon, thyme, turmeric

Foods That Go Well with Pepper
Proteins, Legumes, Nuts, Seeds: Bacon, beans, beef, chicken, duck, eggs, fish and other seafood, ham, lamb, lentils, nuts (in general), peanuts, peas, pine nuts, pork, sausage, sesame, venison, tofu, turkey, veal

Vegetables: Artichokes, asparagus, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cucumbers, eggplant, fennel, garlic, leeks, mushrooms, onions, pickles, potatoes, shallots, spinach, squash, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, vegetables (in general)

Fruits: Apples, apricots, berries, cherries, fruit (in general), grapefruit, grapes, lemon, lime, olives, orange, pineapple, pumpkin, strawberries

Grains and Grain Products: Bread, pasta, rice, tortillas

Dairy and Non-Dairy: Butter, cheese, coconut milk, cream, yogurt

Other Foods: Beer, brandy, oil (esp. olive), sugar, vinegar, wine

Pepper has been used in the following cuisines and dishes…
North American cuisine, baked goods (i.e. spice cakes), Cajun cuisine, Creole cuisine, European cuisines, gravies, Indian cuisine, marinades, pickles, salad dressings, salads, sauces, soups, Southeast Asian cuisine, Southern U.S. cuisine, stocks

Recipe Links
Peppercorn Steak

Steak with Creamy Peppercorn Sauce

Black Pepper, Tofu and Asparagus

Classic Carbonara

Farro-Vegetable Hash with Chermoula

Crispy Turmeric and Pepper Spiced Chicken Wings

Boiled Chicken

Fried Steak with Peppercorn Gravy

Cauliflower Steak with Green Peppercorn Sauce

10 Black Pepper-Based Vegan Recipes to Spice Up Your Night


Page, Karen. (2014) The Vegetarian Flavor Bible. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.


About Judi

Julia W. Klee (Judi) began her journey enjoying “all things food” in elementary school when she started preparing meals for her family. That love of food blossomed into a quest to learn more and more about health and wellness as related to nutrition. She went on to earn a BS Degree in Food and Nutrition, then an MS Degree in Nutrition. She has taught nutrition and related courses at the college level to pre-nursing and exercise science students. Her hunger to learn didn’t stop upon graduation from college. She continues to research on a regular basis about nutrition as it relates to health. Her hope is to help as many people as possible to enjoy foods that promote health and wellness.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *