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Pepper is an easy spice to overlook. Like salt, pepper’s translucent partner, it’s a constant in your kitchen and gets added to nearly every dish you whip up. And it’s been a staple for so long it’s literally ancient, with thousands of years of history as a valuable seasoning. Home cooks and chefs worldwide rely on this wrinkle little spice to add pungent flavor or a little kick. But have you ever thought beyond black pepper?
There are dozens of different types of pepper. While black pepper is a worldwide favorite, you can broaden your flavors, expand your seasoning profile and discover different varieties that are as colorful as they are spicy.
Black pepper is the version you already know well. Made from black peppercorns, this classic spice doesn’t actually start out with its crinkled, crispy black appearance. It begins as a green berry on the Piper nigrum plant, ripens to dark red, then is dried until it shrivels up into the peppercorns you’re familiar with.
There are a few different variations of your basic black pepper. Sure, the peppercorns might all look the same, but your pepper can be made from Tellicherry peppercorns, which are the largest, most pungent and punchiest kind of black pepper. Or you might encounter Malabar black peppercorns, which are grown along the Malabar Coast of India, or Lampong pepper grown in Indonesia.
No matter where your black peppercorns come from, you can expect bold flavor, a pungent fragrance and a bit of spice that goes with almost anything.
White pepper might be rarer than black pepper, but these two varieties have a whole lot in common. In fact, white peppercorns and black peppercorns are actually the same fruit. The very same berries that are used to create black pepper can become white pepper.
So, what’s the difference? And why isn’t white pepper as common as its better-known sibling? Well, white peppercorns aren’t wrinkled – instead, they’re smooth. White pepper is made by picking the berries of the Piper nigrum plant while they’re ripe. Then, instead of drying the berries, they’re soaked or rinsed until the exterior skin dissolves. And that’s what gives the peppercorns their white-ish, gray-ish coloring.
When you grind white peppercorns, they offer a wholly different flavor profile. As a spice, white pepper adds a more delicate note, still pungent but also a little floral and fruity. It makes a great addition to soups and stir-frys – in China, it’s often added to hot and sour soup. But white pepper can also be used more widely, and you can even use it in place of black pepper if you’re looking for something with a little less kick. It’s especially great for light-colored sauces where you might not want to see visible flecks of pepper.
Like black and white pepper, green pepper comes from the Piper nigrum plant. But unlike those two varieties, green pepper is derived from peppercorns that are picked while they’re still green and unripe. They’re then turned into one of two forms: dehydrated dried peppercorns or pickled into a brine.
Dehydrated and dried green peppercorns are the most common kind you’ll come across. Because green pepper is made from the youngest berries, this spice isn’t as complex as its white and black counterparts. Instead, it’s fresher and lighter, with more of zest than a spicy bite.
Green pepper adds mild, bright flavor into everything from seafood to chicken to sauces and vinaigrettes. In Thailand, the spice is often added to curries and stir-frys. Salads and steamed veggies are also great places to give green pepper a try.
Pink peppercorns stand out thanks to their vibrant color, and it’s become a more popular spice in recent years. But pink pepper is actually hiding a little secret: It isn’t a true pepper at all.
Pink pepper doesn’t come from peppercorns – at least not true peppercorns. Instead, this spice is a relative of the cashew. And as a result, anyone who’s allergic to cashews or pistachios can actually have an allergic reaction to pink peppercorns too. It’s a berry that grows on the Schinus molle shrub, bright pink or red in its coloring. And when it’s dried, its appearance and peppery flavor make it seem similar to true peppercorns.
Though it’s a bit of a misnomer, pink pepper does have a deep flavor and a little heat like your tried-and-true black pepper. But pink pepper is also a bit sweet and bright, with some fruit notes. It’s a great seasoning for all cuts of meat, including chicken and turkey. And it’s often found in pepper spice blends alongside black pepper, so you can use it in any dish you’d add black pepper to.
The cool color of pink peppercorns also make this spice a nice visual accent to plenty of recipes. It can turn sauces shades of pink, and it’s even used in some baking recipes for both its color and fruitiness.
“Peppers” that aren’t technically pepper
There are more pepper varieties that aren’t as common as black, white, green or pink peppercorns. However, like pink pepper, these spices aren’t really pepper. They don’t grow on the same plants, and they can come from entirely different berries. What connects them to peppercorns is their strong flavors and their boldness in all kinds of different dishes.
These not-officially-pepper peppers include:
- Long pepper, a complex spice that’s hotter and sweeter than basic black pepper. It’s similar to ginger in its bite.
- Grains of paradise, which are sweet and spicy, mixing the flavors of black pepper with cardamom-like notes.
- Sichuan pepper, a staple in Chinese cooking that’s hot, hot, hot! It’s so spicy, it can sting and numb your taste buds.
- Sansho pepper, which is an even spicier seasoning that makes Sichuan seem mild with its stronger tingle-inducing flavor.
Discover more ways to use pepper and all of the other spices in your pantry: