04/12/2012 09:17 am ET Updated Aug 31, 2012

9 Ways To Cook With Peppercorns

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.

peppercorn recipes