TASTE
05/07/2014 07:00 am ET

Everything You Need To Know About Peppercorns, The Most Widely Used Spice In The World

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Pepper is one of those spices that is so ubiquitous that we definitely take it for granted. Along with salt, pepper appears on just about every table -- in restaurants and kitchens alike. It's used in cuisines across the globe, and in fact, it is the most widely used spice in the world.

Pepper's pungent, spicy flavor makes it a powerful addition to recipes, hot or cold, sweet or savory. Sometimes just a few, solid cranks of freshly ground pepper can carry a whole dish -- like steak au poivre or cacio e pepe. But how much do you really know about this trusty spice? Did you know, for example, that peppercorns are fruit? Or that they've been used in cooking for thousands of years?

Here are 10 facts about peppercorn, to broaden your horizons and deepen your knowledge of the most popular spice around.

  • 1 Peppercorns are fruit!
    Alvaro Leiva via Getty Images
    Black pepper is a vine from the Piperaceae family. Peppercorns are the vine's fruit that have been dried for use. The vines can grow up to 13 feet tall.
  • 2 The Piper nigrum vine originated in South India.
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    It has been used in cooking since at least 2000 BCE.
  • 3 Peppercorns come in many colors.
    GMVozd via Getty Images
    Green peppercorns are unripe, dried fruit. Black peppercorns have been cooked and then dried. White peppercorns come from mature but not fully ripe fruit that has had the skin removed. Red peppercorns come from fully mature fruit and are very rare.
  • 4 Vietnam is the world's largest cultivator of peppercorn.
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    Followed by India, Brazil and Indonesia.
  • 5 In the Middle Ages, peppercorn was used as currency in some places.
    Stuart Minzey via Getty Images
    At one point it was considered as valuable as gold.
  • 6 Black pepper has been used for medicinal purposes for centuries.
    Greg Elms via Getty Images
    It has been used to treat digestive problems -- as both an appetite stimulant and indigestion treatment -- and has also been used topically to ease pain.
  • 7 Legend has it that black peppercorns were found stuffed in the nostrils of Egyptian Pharaoh Ramesses II.
    Juergen Ritterbach via Getty Images
    He was buried in 1213 BCE, and the peppercorns are said to have been used as part of the embalming process.
  • 8 Pepper really does make you sneeze.
    photosindia via Getty Images
    Pepper contains an alkaloid called piperine, which irritates the nasal nerve endings and causes people to sneeze to expel the chemicals. Piperine is also responsible for pepper's spice.
  • 9 Pepper is the most widely traded spice in the world.
    Yamada Taro via Getty Images
    No wonder it is sometimes referred to as the "King of Spices."
  • 10 You should always grind it fresh!
    Matthew Leete via Getty Images
    Never use the pre-ground stuff. Its flavor pales in comparison.

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