Throughout the culinary kingdom, there are many foods that pair famously well, with salt and pepper being perhaps the most iconic. These two grace nearly every dish, every recipe, every dining room table, and every restaurant table. But the two play very different roles. Salt is true seasoning. It heightens the inherent flavor of everything it touches, while pepper adds a contrasting, piquant, pungency that gives your dish a slight edge.
Get basic with black
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Black peppercorn may seem pedestrian when compared to the rest of the peppercorn rainbow, but black pepper has its place—I love a fillet au poivre, black pepper vodka, and of course crunchy black pepper potato chips. Black pepper may be ubiquitous, but there was a time when literal wars were waged over the stuff.
To best enjoy black pepper’s—or any pepper’s—piney, woody flavor and subtle heat, buy whole peppercorns and grind them immediately before sprinkling in or on your food. Pre-ground pepper doesn’t taste like much, and I’ve never found it added much, other than little black flecks, to a dish. Some peppercorns come with their own grinder, or you buy a grinder and fill it with any peppercorns you like. (Don’t grind directly over a hot pot; the steam can degrade your pepper.)
Three peppers, one plant
White, black, and green peppercorns all come from a single plant: Piper nigrum. Normally, a dried pepper drupe is picked when green; from there, some are canned, pickled, or frozen, and those get to keep their emerald hue. Others are briefly boiled, and dried until black. If the black pepper is then husked, you get white pepper, which has a few subtle advantages.
White pepper is a delicate, funky lady
I recently tried to sous vide a duck breast with a recipe calling for black peppercorns in the bag, which I knew was a bad decision, and did it anyway. My duck was dyed a horrifying “Frankenstein’s monster flesh green” hue by the end of the bath—not an ideal presentation. I tried again with white peppercorns, and the results were perfect. Why? Because so many of black pepper’s flavor and color compounds are in the husk. White pepper’s flavor and heat aren’t nearly as strong, but those pale little cherries lend themselves to more visually appealing fare. White pepper is my favorite pepper; it has a more delicate, funkier flavor. You can swap it in anywhere you’d use black pepper, but it’s subtle flavor is easily trounced in acidic sauces. Instead, look use it in dishes where you want the more subtle peppercorn personality traits to shine, like seafood, broths, fried chicken (it’s the pepper prized by KFC), desserts (like créme brûlée and ice cream), and mashed potatoes (to add flavor without little black flecks).
Green pepper has a verdant quality
Since green peppercorns aren’t hung out to dry, they have a mild, almost vegetal flavor. Most notably used for a wonderful steak sauce, their earthy taste works well with soft and salty components. Recently, I sampled them as part of an herb crust for baked goat cheese rounds on a warm spinach salad with a bacon vinaigrette. Yes, it was a thinly veiled excuse to eat a half pound of cheese at 10 a.m., but you’re not my life coach. Instead of judging me, you should make this dish for yourself.
To make it yourself, and get a feel for green pepper, start with a 12-ounce log of very cold goat cheese, and cut it into ½-inch rounds. Freeze these on wax paper (they’ll stick to parchment) for about two hours, or until firm. Combine 1½ cups of pecans, with one tablespoon each of chives, thyme, and green peppercorns in a food processor. Move that to a separate bowl for the time being. Whisk 2 eggs together in a second small bowl until the whites are no longer streaky, and preheat your oven to 475℉. Now that the cheese has firmed up, dip each round of cheese into it, shake off the excess egg and press into the herb mixture. Bake on the upper rack of a 475℉ oven for 7 to 10 minutes.
Cool them for 3 minutes and, if they make it to a plate, they pair sinfully well with compotes, citrus vinaigrettes, and buttery crackers. They make a great appetizer in this size, but the small end of a melon ball scoop makes an amazing hors d’oeuvre.
Get pretty with pink
While black, white, and green peppercorns are different stages of the same plant, pink and Sichuan peppercorns hail from different plant species entirely. As a matter of fact, pink peppercorns are a member of the cashew family, which is horrible news for those of you with tree nut allergies. The pink variety is sweeter, and not nearly as hot. Since these are the brightest of the bunch, they work well in visual applications, such as:
- Compound butters: These are basically the greatest thing on Earth, and make a wonderful showcase for the contrast and vibrant hues of pink peppercorns.
- Vinaigrettes: My favorite is made with duck fat. I’ve tweaked it to exhaust my white balsamic stash, and it is simply unreal.
- Libations: And if all of that isn’t enough, you can be fancy and make cocktails with them.
Embrace the tingle with spicy Sichuan
Sichuan peppercorns weren’t very common stateside until 2005, when the ban on their import into the U.S. was lifted. Often referred to as “Chinese Coriander,” these little orbs are warm and citrusy, with the added bonus of a tingly, numbing sensation. This numbness, often found alongside spicy chili peppers, is referred to as Ma La. If you’re after a unique, spicy heat, these are the way to go. Start your tingly education with Sichuan cuisine, then branch out and try them in a spice rub or add a little to your wing sauce.