Pepper, an Underappreciated Workhouse
Posted on Dec 26 2012 at 03:51:38 PM in Food & Drink
I feel pepper is the workhorse, plodding along, doing its job, dependably. But is it really doing its job? If you are using pre ground pepper, you truly do not know what you are missing. It tastes nothing like freshly ground pepper, even if using low quality peppercorns. Freshly ground pepper has a bouquet all its own, and a flavor that puts the pre ground commercial variety to shame. Using high quality Tellicherry or Malabar peppercorns is a revelation. The flavor and bouquet are exquisitely floral with pungency and bite. Once I tried these, I could never go back.
Black pepper comes from the piper nigrum plant. The pepper berries from that plant are used in varying ways to produce black, white and green peppercorns. If the berries are allowed to ripen before picking, the quality of the pepper goes up. Black peppercorns get larger as they ripen, and Malabar are the next to best in size and quality. The top of the line peppercorns are Tellicherry, the ripest and largest with the fullest flavor. Some scoff that pepper is just hot. While there is pungency and bite, truly high quality pepper has enough flavor to make one sit up and take note.
Green peppercorns are just that. They are the green berries of the same plant, picked before maturity and allowed to dry. They also have a lighter, yet distinct pepper flavor and aroma. Some green peppercorns are pickled in brine, and are a wonderful addition to a dish. Creamy dishes seem to benefit with brined green peppercorns. They give a lovely burst of heat that is just piquant enough to give interest to a dish.
White peppercorns are also from the same plant, and are nothing more than black peppercorns that have been soaked in water until the outer black shell can be rubbed off. The flavor of white pepper is very obvious as pepper, but more subtle. The main benefit in white peppercorns is the ability to add to creamed dishes, such as Chicken and Dumplings, where black pepper would mar the look of the finished product. In more recent years a new variety of white peppercorns has arisen. Sarawak white peppercorns are kept under running water until the skins peel off. The finished product is whiter and cleaner and often larger in size than traditional white peppercorns.
Invest in at least one good peppermill, or more, if possible. Grind your pepper when it is needed, and not before. I have many peppermills. One is for grinding black pepper very fine. One is specifically a coarse grind for the table. One mill is filled with only white peppercorns, for special dishes. One is filled with a mixture of white, green and pink peppercorns, which is a great combination on lighter meats like chicken, pork and fish. What about pink peppercorns? These are not pepper at all, but the berries of a different plant, schinus molle. Because they look like pepper berries and have a peppery flavor, they have become a colorful addition to gourmet pepper mixtures.
There are other species of pepper that are sadly underused. Long Pepper, piper longum, with fruit over an inch long, is hotter than black pepper with a hint of cinnamon. These are wonderful left whole in stews for long cooking. Cubeb Pepper, piper cubeba, is a cross between pepper and allspice in flavor. It is also called tailed pepper because of its little stem left attached.
Whichever variety of pepper you choose, make sure the peppercorns are whole, and grind them just before use. Taste the different varieties separately and find out the subtle differences. Invest in a really high quality peppermill, such as an Atlas brass mill, which was originally meant for grinding coffee. Make the workhorse into a thoroughbred to be appreciated.
About The Author
My name is Chris Rawstern and I have been on a cooking and baking journey for 42 years. Many people have asked what A Harmony of Flavors means. Have you ever had a meal where the visual presentation was stunning, the smells were incredible, the taste was so remarkable that you ate slowly savoring every bite, wishing the experience would never end? Then you have experienced what a truly harmonious meal can be like.
My passion is to teach people how to create a Harmony of Flavors with their cooking, and help pass along my love and joy of food, both simple and exotic, plain or fancy. I continue my journey in ethnic and domestic cuisines, trying new things. I would love to hear from you, to help me continue my journey to explore diverse culinary experiences and hopefully to start you on a journey of your own.
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