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We admit it -- we've been known to use pepper indiscriminately, grabbing whatever peppermill is near. We know it's wrong -- don't judge us too harshly -- and we decided that it was time get our act together and bone up on pepper. We called on our friend Lior Lev Sercarz of La Boîte à Epice (remember him? Eric Ripert's go-to spice guy), to set us straight. He forgave our seasoning sins (you should, too) and gave us the following re-education.
First things first:
All true pepper comes from the piper nigrum plant. There are other spicy berries masquerading as pepper, but don't be fooled.
It's best to stick to whole peppercorns and grinding your pepper fresh. The pre-ground stuff loses its aroma quickly, making it dull by the time you get to cook with it. Who wants that?
Want to know what Lior says about grinding and storing spices? See here.
What it is: Produced from the still-green, unripe fruit of the piper nigrum plant, the berries are dried for several days, or blanched and then dried.
Varieties: Lots! With fun names like Lampung pepper from Indonesia, Sarawak pepper from Malaysia, and the more well-known Tellicherry pepper from India. We often stock Tellichery in the FOOD52 test kitchen.
Good for: Just about anything. We love it freshly ground over salads or eggs, and use it in a majority of our savory cooking. We're also hoping to revive Steak au Poivre, Merrill published a great recipe for it in the New York Times not too long ago.
What it is: The slightly ripe fruit of the piper nigrum plant is gathered and soaked in water in order to remove the flesh from the seed. The remaining seed is then dried. As a result, white pepper is less spicy.
Reputation rehab: There was a time when much of what was available wasn't exactly high quality white pepper. Lazy harvesting practices -- like cutting the drying time short -- can lead to fermentation and a funky taste. Luckily for us, and for white pepper's stature in the spice world, all this is changing and the quality of white pepper on store shelves is much improved.
Varieties: You might come across Muntok pepper from Indonesia and Sarawak pepper from Malaysia. Penja, a delicate white pepper that grows in volcanic soil in Cameroon, isn't likely to be found at your local A&P; if you come across it on your travels, please pick some up for us -- thanks!
Good for: Think of this as your more serene pepper, the ideal dinner guest who won't shout at the table, the one who always minds his manners. Pair it with vegetables, like these Haricots Verts à la Dijonnaise. Call on it when you're cooking fish and shellfish -- this Preserved Lemon and Spring Vegetable Risotto with Grilled Pernod Shrimp is a favorite of ours.
What it is: The unripe fruit from the piper nigrum plant, green pepper is most commonly pickled, freeze-dried, or air-dried.
What it is: The fraud of the pepper world! It may look like pepper, and it may be called pepper, but this berry comes from another plant altogether. It's often grouped under the pepper umbrella because of its shape and spiciness. It's also commonly referred to as red pepper, though they are unrelated.
Where it comes from: Pink pepper is the round fruit of the schinus terebinthifolius tree, native to South America. Most pink pepper comes from Brazil.
Good for: We like this little misfit, and you will, too. Its delicate bite, mild heat and berrylike sweetness make it ideal for seafood and desserts. Try these Pink Pepper Macerated Strawberries.
What it is: The ripe fruit of the piper nigrum vine, picked and left to dry in the sun. Often confused with pink pepper, red pepper is very hard to find. Chances are, the average consumer will never encounter red peppercorns but, again, keep us in mind if you happen upon it.
Where it's from: Red pepper hails from the region of Pondicherry in India.
Good for: The citrus notes of red pepper pair perfectly with seafood, such as these Salmon Papillotes with Red Peppercorns, Lime and Fresh Ginger.
What they are: Blends make for a complexity of flavors. At La Boîte à Epice, Lior makes a colorful blend of eight different peppercorns called Pierre Poivre, named after the French merchant who broke the Dutch monopoly on the spice trade.
DIY: Why not make your own blends? Buy peppercorn varieties individually, and then mix to your heart's content. Think of the possibilities!
Good for: Blends such as Pierre Poivre are great for steaks, game, burgers, grilling, and salad seasoning.
Grains of Paradise
What it is: Another pepper imposter. Grains of paradise were once used as a substitute for black pepper when it wasn't readily available. We're big fans of this spice, and think that in some cases, it's got pepper beat. Someone around these parts wrote a love letter to these exotic little seeds a few years ago.
Where it's from: Grains of paradise are the seeds of the the melegueta plant, a shrub that grows wild in countries like Guinea, Liberia, and Ghana. The plant is often linked to the cardamom family and, like cardamom, it produces pods filled with fragrant seeds.
Good for: Less acidic and milder than black pepper, grains of paradise have notes of citrus, ginger, cardamom and hazelnut with a nutty crunch. They're popular for brewing beer and also great sprinkled over salads or as seasoning for fish and meat. Or try them with these Hard Cooked Eggs, Lime Aioli and Dukkah.
What's your favorite type of pepper? How do you make the most of it?