Peppercorns are the dried berries of a smooth, woody vine called—you guessed it—a pepper plant. Depending on when the berries are picked, the pepper is white (very ripe), black (half ripe), or green (un-ripe). (Pink peppercorns actually come from a completely different plant.) Black pepper is the most pungent, flavorful, and widely used of all types of pepper, and for good reason! It’s as versatile as it is delicious.
Peppercorns should be stored in an air tight, glass container in a cool, dark place away from direct sunlight. Whole black peppercorns stay fresh for over a year.
There are three main advantages to buying whole peppercorn and grinding it yourself.
1) It’s more flavorful! Keeping your peppercorn whole locks in the flavor for longer
2) You know what you’re getting! Many brands of ground pepper are often mixed with other spices.
3) You control the grind! You pick how fine or course to grind your pepper depending on intended use.
Whole peppercorn should be heavy, compact, round and free of blemishes. It’s also important to remember that the typical cook is peppering almost everything; this everyday spice is not the place to penny pinch. Typically good quality pepper is not much more expensive than lesser quality pepper.
Pepper has played an important role in history. Pepper catalyzed spice trade, which lead to the exploration of new worlds, and helped develop major merchant cities in Europe and the Middle East. It has been used as a currency (to pay taxes and ransoms), a sacred offering (to honor gods), and a seasoning. From a culinary perspective, pepper was used not only to spice up bland foods, but also to mask not-so-fresh food flavor, which was especially important before preservation was prevalent.
Tips and Tricks
- If cooked for too long, pepper can start to loose its flavor and aroma. For an extra peppery flavor, add pepper near the end of cooking.
- Black pepper improves digestion and reduces gas because it has antibacterial effects. So if you’re eating chili… pepper up!
- The outer layer of the peppercorn stimulates the breakdown of fat cells.
Pepper starts losing its pungency and flavor the instant it’s ground. If you have a pepper mill (and need a relatively small amount) grind as needed. You can also grind pepper in small batches (and keep it in an air tight jar). If you’d rather pre-grind pepper in small batches, test for freshness before using. Rub a small amount of the ground pepper in the palm of your hand, then smell and taste it. If the aroma is weak, or the taste is bland, throw it out! (Caution: sneezing may occur.)
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