There's one spice in your cupboard that you may take for granted. It's one that you use most often, and it's typically used right after salt -- it's the yang to salt's yin. Pepper! Just a grinding or two is enough to season a finished dish, but sometimes a whole lot of it, coarsely cracked, is amazing on steaks and other meats.
Pepper used to be the king of the spice world and was at one point in history the most valuable. Today pepper is cheap and, with the wide availability of exotic spices, it's easy to forget how important pepper really is to us.
Peppercorns are actually berries that grow in grape-like clusters on the Piper nigrum vine, which is native to India and Indonesia. Black, green and white peppercorns are all "true" peppercorns and come from this same plant. What differentiates them is how they're processed.
- Black peppercorns are picked underripe, briefly boiled and dried.
- Green peppercorns are also picked underripe but treated so the color stays intact and then dried or brined (great for sauces).
- White peppercorns are allowed to fully ripen, stripped of their dark outer shells by soaking and then dried.
All these peppercorns can be purchased whole or ground. As you might imagine, green peppercorns have the freshest taste, black peppercorns the most pungent and white the mildest.
A few other spices also carry the name pepper or peppercorn, including pink peppercorns and Sichuan peppercorns. But these peppercorns are unrelated to true pepper.
- Pink peppercorns come from an evergreen tree called Schinus molle, which is native to Peru, Chile and Argentina. Its flavor is much more fruity than regular pepper -- it's great used in salad dressings or as a seasoning for fish or chicken.
- Sichuan peppercorns are the berries of a plant related to citrus. The outer dried husks of the berries are used as a spice with the tiny, gritty seeds discarded. Prized in Chinese Sichuan cuisine, the peppercorns have a unique citrus aroma and create a tingling sensation in the mouth. They are best used in stir-frys or as a seasoning for meats.
Browse the slideshow below to see recipes that feature the different kinds of pepper.
How much pepper do you use in your cooking? Let us know below.
These thick-cut pork chops feature two kinds of pepper: black and green. Ground black peppercorns coat the chops and green peppercorns season the brandy-cream sauce. Make the sauce in the same pan to pick up all the flavor. Get the Pan Roasted Double-Cut Pork Chops with Peppercorn Crust recipe
This classic Italian pasta dish is as simple as it gets. The name literally translates to "cheese and pepper" -- and that's all you need to create a flavorful pasta sauce. Traditionally sharp pecorino Romano is used, but this recipe adds Parmesan to vary the flavor. Get the Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe recipe
The combination of coarsely cracked black, green and white peppercorns makes a pretty presentation on the exterior of this beef tenderloin. It also lends an immense amount of flavor. Make the recipe for a special Sunday family dinner. Get the Peppercorn-Crusted Beef Tenderloin recipe
Sichuan peppercorns add a tongue-tingling heat to this shrimp recipe. Serve the sauteed shrimp over mung bean noodles, which turn glass-like when the soy sauce is added. Get the Pan-Seared Sichuan Shrimp with Mung Bean Noodles recipe
Turkey also benefits from a coating of peppercorns. For this recipe the turkey is brined for a few hours to infuse it with lots of flavor. The outside is coated in crushed black peppercorns -- or try grains of paradise, which is another pepper-like spice used in African cuisine. Get the Peppercorn-Crusted Turkey Tenderloin recipe
Here's a classic Sichuan dish that highlights the heat of the cuisine. Sichuan peppercorns and hot chile peppers make this dish a mouth scorcher. A bit of ground pork adds a nice savory flavor to the dish. Serve as a main or side dish. Get the Spicy Sichuan Green Beans recipe
Sichuan peppercorns, toasted and finely ground, add a unique spicy flavor to this steak recipe. The pepper is combined with black bean-chili sauce and white wine to be used as the marinade. Grill the steaks until medium-rare and slice them on the diagonal to serve. Get the Grilled Flank Steak with Sichuan Peppercorns recipe
The French are known for their steak au poivre. This version made with filet mignon, which is encrusted in peppercorns. Make the red wine sauce in the same skillet to pick up all the pepper flavor that remains in the pan. Serve with sauteed spinach and celeriac puree for a special dinner. Get the Pepper-Crusted Filet Mignon recipe
This Chinese specialty relies on black pepper for its spicy flavor. Chinese five-spice powder (which has Sichuan pepper) is also used to dust the shrimp. Serve over a refreshing Napa cabbage slaw to cool the palate. Try this dish for lunch or a dinner in place of takeout. Get the Salt and Pepper Shrimp recipe