What Is Pepper?

What does pepper contribute to our food, as well as our daily rituals? Get to know your old friend pepper in a whole new way and your cooking experience will be the richer for it.

Little bowls full of green, black, pink ans szechuan peppercorns

Alison Bickel

Nothing beats freshly ground pepper! Learn a few tricks and tips, and you’ll never take pepper for granted again.

Pepper is yang to salt’s yin. When we think of one, we think of the other. Seasoning with pepper may be a conscious choice we make, but the act is so ingrained in our behavior we don’t always stop to consider its function.

Salt is an essential nutrient; our bodies need it to survive. Pepper, by contrast, is a preference, there to add flavor and texture to our foods.

Where Is Pepper Grown?

Pepper is a fruit. It’s the berry of the perennial vine Piper nigrum, native to equatorial India. It needs hot, humid weather and lots of sun to thrive. The berries grow in long, dangling clusters.

Black, white, and green peppercorns are the same berry. They are simply harvested and processed in different ways, and at different times, which accounts for the color variation. Each kind of pepper has its own flavor profile and role to play in our cooking.

Black pepper has been used in Indian cooking since 2000 BC. The spice trade between India and the Roman Empire, where pepper was a luxury ingredient, became a lucrative business. The culinary and monetary allure of pepper was a huge reason European powers sought new trades routes, helping spawn the Age of Exploration.

Today, black pepper still dominates the global spice market. Vietnam, Indonesia, India, and Brazil are the top-producing countries. According to the International Trade Centre, it accounted for one-fifth of the world’s imported spices in 2016.

Not all pepper is the same! We call a few spices "peppercorns" (pink peppercorns among them) but they aren’t even botanically related to pepper; more on those later.

Little bowls full of green, black, pink ans szechuan peppercorns

Alison Bickel

What Does Pepper Taste Like?

If you have pepper around, go get it. Grind it or shake some out of a shaker. Smell it. Is it bright or musty? Earthy or sharp? Sprinkle some on your tongue.

If you are feeling brave, bite into a whole peppercorn. There’s a prickly sensation initially, then a spreading warmth that’s invigorating.

Different grinds also give you different sensations. There’s a powerful and enlivening hit of heat when you have big chunks of ground pepper versus a dusting of finely ground pepper.

Now that you’re in a peppery frame of mind, let’s take a look at different varieties of pepper and what they have to offer you.

How to Select Good Pepper

If you cook a lot, buy peppercorns in bulk. You’ll save money and likely get a fresher product. (Who knows how long those little jars have been on the shelf?)

When choosing peppercorns, look for uniform color and darkness (signs of quality). I love The Spice House, Zingerman’s, Penzeys, and Kalustyan’s, which offer peppercorns from many regions with distinct qualities. Closer to you, natural foods stores or many grocery stores with good bulk food sections may carry bulk spices.

whole black peppercorns

Alison Bickel

Black Pepper

Black pepper is probably what’s in your grinder or shaker right now.

The berries for what becomes black pepper are harvested as they turn from green to yellow. Then they’re dried in the sun for three to seven days. After this curing, they become the tiny, wrinkly black pellets we know so well.

Black pepper is an ace solo player, but also a fine ensemble actor. It’s a vital part in many global spice blends, including berbere, garam masala, ras al hanout, and dukkah. And don’t forget lemon pepper!

White Pepper

Alison Bickel

White Pepper

Alas, white pepper—the neglected peppercorn! It’s way different from black pepper, and not just in color.

White pepper comes from the same plant as black pepper, but the berries are harvested ripe, and then soaked so their outer skins strip away, leaving an inner seed that’s creamy white.

White pepper is not as fruity as black pepper, but it is spicy-hotter than black pepper. It also has a musty, fermented character that offsets rich foods and spices that have a lot of resinous, citrusy notes (like juniper).

In classical French cooking, white pepper is preferred for seasoning white cream sauces and stews because it doesn’t interrupt the monochrome look—it’s not necessarily a flavor preference. (To be honest, I like the speckled look of black pepper in cream sauces.)

I love white pepper in dry rubs as a foil for fatty meats like lamb. The French seasoning quatre-épices, used in pâtés and sausages, employs white pepper along with nutmeg, cloves, and ginger to this effect. Chinese cuisine is notable for its use of white pepper. The “hot” in hot and sour soup comes from white pepper.

Grind white pepper and black pepper side by side and notice their distinct aromas. One at a time, put some on your tongue and consider their flavors. There’s no rule about when it’s appropriate to use white or black pepper. It’s up to you!

Green Peppercorns

Alison Bickel

Green Pepper

In its purest form, green pepper is simply fresh, unripe pepper berries. Because it’s pretty impossible to transport fresh pepper halfway around the world, what we see on the market comes in two forms: freeze-dried or bottled in brine.

The flavor is sweeter and fruitier, but still peppery. Try it with fish, chicken, or even chèvre cheese.

Pink Peppercorns

Alison Bickel

Pink Pepper

Pink peppercorns come from an entirely different plant. Schinus molle (a.k.a. pepper tree, pepper plant, or pepperberry) is native to the Andes and is an evergreen in the cashew family. (Knowing such, if you have tree nut allergies avoid pink peppercorns.) Fun fact: florists use fresh branches of pepper plant in arrangements.

Pink peppercorns are the same size as black peppercorns, and they have some of the same punch, but not quite as much. In their dried form, the berries are more delicate than black pepper, and when ground, they are like fine, cheerfully red-pink confetti.

Try them in cream sauces, with lighter seafoods, over eggs, and with poached poultry.

szechuan peppercorns

Alison Bickel

Szechuan Pepper

Also not from Piper nigrum, it’s the dried fruit of a species of prickly ash tree in the Zanthoxylum genus. Its flavor is mostly in the outer husks, and the small, hard seeds are not usually included in the spice.

Szechuan pepper delivers a tongue-numbing sensation that is said to enable diners to better taste the flavors of spicy chilis. It’s a vital component of Chinese five-spice. It’s often dry-toasted and ground right before using.

Little bowls full of mixed peppercorns, green peppercorns, ground peppercorns, and black peppercorns.

Alison Bickel

Peppercorn Blends

Spice companies often offer combinations of black, white, green, and pink peppercorns because they look striking in clear acrylic pepper mills.

Spice purists may poo-poo these blends, as it dilutes the individual qualities of each variety of peppercorn. I don’t really have a position here. If you use it and like it, keep doing so.

Pepper grinder grinding pepper onto a salad

Alison Bickel

How to Season Foods With Pepper

Unless I’m testing a recipe, I hardly ever measure pepper or grind it in advance. I just grind some with my pepper mill over the pot (or pan, or salad, or what have you) until it seems like enough. Then I taste it and add more if needed.

If you need to measure an exact amount of ground pepper for your recipe, grind it into a small dish or onto your cutting board and then scoop up what you need with measuring spoons. Another trick is to grind it on a sheet of paper—pick up the sheet, bend it to make a spout, and funnel it into your measuring spoon.

Savvy recipes call for seasoning with pepper at the end of a recipe. This is because you’ll mute some of the volatile oils in the pepper if you add it too early to a long-cooked dish like soup or stew. You can always hit it with some pepper early in the process, then finish with more fresh pepper for a one-two punch. But you do get the most mileage out of freshly ground pepper when you add it at the very end of cooking.

I’ve not yet resorted to keeping a small grinder in my purse to deploy when dining out or visiting relatives, but I’m considering it. (Wink.)

How to Store Pepper

For optimal flavor, store whole peppercorns in a dark, dry place for up to a year. After that point, they won’t go bad, but they will start to lose their flavor. If we still haven't convinced you that grinding fresh is best read our post on Why You Should Use Freshly Ground Pepper.

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