If your kitchen houses an old jar of ground black pepper, do me a favor and throw it out. I’m on a campaign to start the New Year fresh, and my resolution includes discarding all outdated spices and sundries lurking in the back of the pantry. This applies to all spices, from aniseed to za’atar, but ground pepper is at the top of my list.
Pepper is the most commonly used spice in the world, but anyone who’s using the pre-ground stuff is missing out on its true intensity of flavor. The world’s best chefs have always known that pepper loses flavor when added early in the cooking process. And because the peppercorns’ essential oils aren’t released until they are ground, a fresh grind of peppercorns can elevate many dishes with the perfect finishing touch.
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Armed with a collection of 14 peppercorn types from around the world, I gathered a few fearless friends for a tasting party. Countries of peppercorn origin were Brazil, Cameroon, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Madagascar and Vietnam, plus the French island of Réunion. Colors included creamy white, soft grey-green, rose, rust red and a dark black-brown. My guests doubted that they’d really notice a difference, but the exercise proved surprisingly revealing.
A technique for a pepper tasting party
Following a classic technique for wine tasting, we used sight to judge size, finish and color; next, a heady sniff revealed a wide array of complex aromas and bouquets from smoky and spicy to dried fruit to sherry. Finally, we completed the exercise by crunching away to determine taste, length of finish and heat index. As I had learned in olive oil tastings, it’s important to be prepared with coffee beans (a whiff of coffee beans will clear your sinuses of residual aromas), green apple slices (to clear your palate between tastings) and plenty of water.
The peppercorns showed off enormous variations in taste profiles. My two favorites were a green peppercorn from Brazil that smelled like licorice and cardamom and tasted of fresh, slightly spicy herbs; and a Sarawak black from Malaysia that was smoky, spicy and tasted a bit like mushrooms and cedar. Two other varieties that were universally liked were not truly peppercorns, but similar enough to join the roster: the sweet, floral, fruity flavor of rose mastic berries from the island of Réunion and the perfumed, sweet clove and apricot flavor of Sichuan pepper from China.
At the beginning of the year, it just feels right to clean the cupboards and start fresh. This year, I’ll be indulging in ingredients I’ve never used before and kitchen experiments I’ve never tried. “Out with the old, and in with the new” may be an overused cliché, but in my pantry it’s going to start with spices — and playing with peppercorns will be a great way to begin.
Know what’s in your seasoning
If you haven’t heard, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently released a study focusing on ground spices as carriers of the microbial pathogen salmonella. While pepper was not one of the major offenders, it does have a long history of being adulterated with cheaper spices, dirt, hulls and harvesting scraps.
There are two simple solutions to ensuring that the pepper you use is pure and safe. Begin by only buying whole peppercorns because there is little chance that an unscrupulous purveyor can dilute them with dirt, debris and other cheap ground spices. The website Pepper-Passion is an excellent online resource for a wide variety of peppercorns.
When you buy whole peppercorns, you can see exactly what’s in the jar and even sort through them to remove any dirt, twigs and rocks that might remain. Next, take a few minutes to roast your peppercorns either in a 325 F oven for 10 to 15 minutes or in a pan over medium heat for 5 minutes to kill any unwanted microbial pathogens hitching a ride on the spice. It takes only 165 F of heat to kill the bacteria.
Top photo: A variety of peppercorns from around the world. Credit: Caroline J. Beck