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This article is part of Change The Way You Cook, a new series to help anyone (yes, you!) become smarter, faster, and more freewheeling in the kitchen.
We’ve said it before, we’ll say it again: Salting is the most important part of cooking. So why does black pepper get to tag along and bask in all its glory? Does black pepper tenderize meat? Cure fish? Draw the water out of vegetables like magic?
Don’t get me wrong. I love cacio e pepe as much as the next twenty-something with an Instagram (yes, all my girlfriends were simultaneously ’gramming their cacio e pepes and, yes, our waiter hated us). I add all the black pepper to Caesar dressing. I turn a coarse grind into a crust for griddled burgers or stir-fried tofu. I even sneak it into my gingerbread and fruit crisps.
But a conscious uncoupling is in order. Salt: where you lead, pepper can’t always follow. You two are cute together but you can’t always be together, you know? It’s clingy. It’s unbecoming. It’s bringing you both down. Just listen to our friend, Samin Nosrat:
“While it’s true that where there’s pepper there should almost always be salt, the inverse isn’t necessarily so,” she writes in her book, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. Salt is a mineral, which alters food’s flavor and its chemistry. “Pepper, on the other hand, is a spice.”
And there are other spices. A lot of other spices! None of which are all-purpose. Here, we’ll cover our go-to, spicy alternatives, which, like black pepper, offer warmth, zest, zing. A rowdy bunch! Let’s get to know them:
White peppercorns: Black and white peppercorns are born from the same vine—Piper nigrum—but processed differently. Black pepper starts with unripe berries, which are dried. White pepper starts with fully ripened berries, which are fermented, then stripped of their outer skin. They have an earthy, funky flavor, musky smell, and mellow spice. The lack of color makes white pepper a spice cabinet stand-out. When to use:
- Classic, French, pale-hued sauces like béchamel, mornay, veloute, hollandaise
- Really, pale-hued anything: fondue, mashed potatoes, mac and cheese
- Hot and sour soup (the “hot” element traditionally refers to white pepper)
Pink peppercorns: Unrelated to black and white peppercorns, pink peppercorns are the same shape and size and surname, but come from different plants. Pink peppercorns hail from Schinus molle, or the Peruvian pepper tree. These petite, cranberry-colored berries are fragile in build and piquant and fruity in flavor. Treat them like the pretty counterpart to flaky salt. When to use:
- Dishes that love black pepper but want to play dress-up: cacio e pepe, salt and pepper French toast
- Open-faced sandwiches, from tomato-and-mayo to cheese toast
- Vinaigrettes, or even just oil and vinegar
- Fruit chutneys, especially cranberry sauce
Sichuan peppercorns: Unrelated to black and white and pink peppercorns, these rosy-hued berries grow on the prickly ash shrub and are signature to—just guess—Sichuan cuisine. The FDA banned Sichuan peppercorn imports for almost 40 years, from 1968 to 2005, thanks to a bacteria scare. Now, we can enjoy them all we want. But do proceed with caution: Fruity, citrusy Sichuan peppercorns aren’t known for their heat as much as their numbing, burning one-two punch. In China, it’s known as ma la—tingling heat—which means this spice is just as much flavor as sensation. After grinding, you could sift the peppercorns in a fine-mesh sieve to remove the flavorless outer husks, but that’s up to you. When to use:
- Sichuan staples, like mapo dofu and dan dan noodles
- Speedy weeknight stir-frys, from green beans to pork
- Minimalist dessert recipes like shortbread, ice cream, caramel sauce (really!)
Red hot chili peppers
Ground cayenne: This crimson-colored chili pepper ranges between 30,000 and 50,000 Scoville units. (For context: a jalapeño ranges between 5,000 and 10,000.) It should burn—but in a worth-it way, like a sunburn after a nap on the beach. Because it’s most commonly available ground, both cayenne's heat and flavor hinge on freshness. So if you think it’s bland, it’ll only get worse (toss it!). Buying in small amounts from the bulk section of a grocery store can sidestep this. When to use:
- Dredging for breading, especially fried chicken or chicken-fried anything (bonus points for Nashville-style)
- Cheesy baked goods like cheddar scones, blue cheese shortbread, or gruyere gougères
- Anywhere pumpkin pie spice is invited. Cayenne’s oomph accentuates warm baking spices, such as cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg: pumpkin pie, or pumpkin soup
- Chocolatey anything, like cardamom hot chocolate or fudgy chocolate torte
Red pepper flakes: Also goes by: crushed red pepper. Pepper here means chilies, not peppercorns. Which chilies varies by brand and, often, it’s a blend. Expect the the spice level to compare with cayenne—so, quite spicy—only intensified by the coarse texture and inclusion of seeds. Proceed with caution, adding pinch by pinch. You’ll cross paths with red pepper flakes at pizzerias, where they live in glass shakers on tables. And that’s one of their best uses: as a garnish. If you fry them in oil, like other spices, be mindful as they burn swiftly. When to use:
- Cheesy pizzas and creamy pastas, especially alfredo
- Spicy tomato sauces, like arabiata or puttanesca
- Simple green salads—say, shaved Brussels sprouts—with olive oil, lemon, and pecorino
- Anywhere with feta! Bonus points if chickpeas are there, too
The Wild Card
Ground mustard: Also goes by: dry mustard, powdered mustard. The mustard plant is part of the Brassicaceae family—so, broccoli, cabbage, turnips, etc. Unlike its cousins, mustard is sharp and sassy, which we know from neon yellow squiggles on hot dogs and winey dollops of dijon in vinaigrettes. In this case, the plant’s beady seeds are dried, then finely ground. But not all seeds are created equal. There’s yellow, white, brown, and black, each with its own personality. Yellow—tart and mellow—yields American-style ground mustard. Brown—strong and spicy—distinguishes English-style mustard, like Colman’s. I prefer the latter for its pungency. When to use:
- Turn into a paste with water or beer for a makeshift condiment.
- Salad dressings, especially buttermilk ranch
- Mayonnaise-based salads, like chicken or egg
- Rich, creamy dishes, like mac and cheese
- Pickling brine
- 3-4 russet or Idaho potatoes, scrubbed and dried
- extra-virgin olive oil
- Kosher salt
- Chopped chives, for serving
- 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
- 1 teaspoon ground white pepper
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 3/4 cups whole milk, warm
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste