Put the (Black) Pepper Down! Why Your Salt Wants Some New Friends

January 10, 2018

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?

Photo by Bobbi Lin

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.

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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:

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Top Comment:
“Mignonette pepper: mix 2 parts each black & white peppercorns & 1 part whole dried coriander. (From France & Quebec). 3) Provencal pepper: mix 6 parts black pepper, 4 parts white pepper, 1 part allspice (this blend according to Jeremiah Tower).”
— Nancy

“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:

Other peppercorns

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:

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

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Holly
  • btglenn
  • Nancy
  • Marit Grimstad
    Marit Grimstad
  • AntoniaJames
Emma was the food editor at Food52. She created the award-winning column, Big Little Recipes, and turned it into a cookbook in 2021. These days, she's a senior editor at Bon Appétit, leading digital cooking coverage. Say hello on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.


Holly January 28, 2018
One I have recently discovered is Long pepper.. piper longum. Long pepper use to be used more often than black. It has the heat of black with some sweetness similar to cardamom
Nancy February 9, 2018
I have a late medieval/early modern spice blend which features long pepper. Can be used for meat dishes or baking. If you want it, message me or ask here & I'll post it.
Holly February 9, 2018
I would love that!!
Nancy February 9, 2018
Holly Burns - here is the recipe. Enjoy...:)
btglenn January 17, 2018
I avoid salt for medical reasons. Spices, herbs, Aleppopepper, hot sauce and low salt soy sauce work for me.
Nancy January 14, 2018
Great article, and thanks for bringing these ideas together :)
Meanwhile, also consider the smoky, warm flaked red peppers from Turkey and Syria - Aleppo, Marash and/or Urfa.
For taste & variety, especially with a see-through mill at the table, use:
1) four color blends (available commercially or mix your own).
2) Mignonette pepper: mix 2 parts each black & white peppercorns & 1 part whole dried coriander. (From France & Quebec).
3) Provencal pepper: mix 6 parts black pepper, 4 parts white pepper, 1 part allspice (this blend according to Jeremiah Tower).
Emma L. January 14, 2018
Thanks, Nancy! And wow to mignonette pepper! Definitely want to learn more about that.
Nancy January 14, 2018
Emma - The mignonette blend is currently my favorite, both for cooking and at the table. See Wikipedia and food ref books for mignonette sauce, used for oysters, which includes cracked black pepper (alone or with other spices). Don't remember where I got the coriander version, but it's good.
Ann S. January 28, 2018
Penney's carries a mignonette and it's delicious!
AntoniaJames September 24, 2020
I've been playing with pepper mixes for ages (tried years ago to get Food52 shop to create a black pepper / allspice blend, but that request disappeared into a black hole). Since then I've had a lot of fun experimenting with similar blends. I cannot recall the inspiration for this, but there is a mignonette blend mentioned somewhere out there that is black pepper/white pepper/coriander seeds/allspice berries in a 2:2:1:1 ratio. It's wonderful -- vibrant and perky, without overwhelming. If I recall correctly, the Quebecois like this especially as a dry rub for roasted meats. I frequently use it on roasted vegetables, and in the simplest omelettes, featuring nothing more than a bit of finely chopped fresh garden herbs (especially marjoram) and that pepper blend.

Another blend - picked up from the professional chef who teaches new-owner classes at the big Wolf showroom in Denver (great class!!) -- is a simple, everyday blend he uses, of 10 parts kosher salt to 1 part freshly ground black pepper. So handy, and if you make just 1/4 cup at a time, the pepper is fresh enough for everyday use in cooked items. ;o)
Marit G. January 11, 2018
My favourite pepper . fresh green peppercorns still on the branch. Get them from Thai shops, not hot but oh so good
AntoniaJames January 10, 2018
Another wildcard . . . allspice. Edward Behr in one of his books published 20+ years ago mentioned that he fills one of his pepper mills with a portion of allspice berries along with black peppercorns. It's a great idea (although I recommend crushing the allspice in a mortar and pestle first a bit for easier grinding).

I cannot eat chilies, cayenne or paprika or any other spice / vegetable in the capsicum family, so I have had to be creative in finding alternatives to punch up savory dishes. A light touch of allspice is a great "neutral" spice in most savory dishes, as the Dutch and Scandinavians have known for centuries. To quote the late, great Judy Rodgers, "Try this." ;o)