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Beyond Black Pepper: 5 Different Peppercorns, and When to Use Them

Two bowls of assorted peppercorns on a wooden table.

When you have a savory dish in front of you, you might grind some fresh black pepper over it without a second thought. Before your next meal, though, you might want to learn about all the other tongue-tingling peppercorns your spice rack has to offer.

What Are Peppercorns?

Peppercorns are tiny fruits of a flowering vine that grow clusters of berries. They’re harvested at different stages of ripeness, depending on the desired type of peppercorn and degree of strength.

You can find these vines in many tropical regions, but it’s native to India. While black, green, and white peppercorns are all technically the same fruit, they’re each handled differently before they’re sold at your local market. There are also pink and Sichuan peppercorns, but more on those later.

Black & Green Peppercorns

Freshly cracked green peppercorns

The most common peppercorn, as you likely already know, is black. However, they were once unripened, green peppercorns, but they’ve been cooked and dried. Freshly ground black peppercorns have a pungent flavor and taste wonderful when sprinkled on (or mixed in) many different meals.

From a dry rub to a freshly cracked finish, these tiny, rough spheres can give just about any meal the extra kick it usually needs.

Once again, green peppercorns are the unripe fruits that are used to make black peppercorns. Not to be confused with capers (although they do look alike), green peppercorns come from a completely different plant. They also have similar preservation methods, but capers taste tangy, while brined green peppercorns have a mild piquant flavor.

You’ll usually find green peppercorns dried or preserved in a brine. The latter keeps these little fruits fresh and full of flavor and color, but they typically have a shorter shelf life than dried, cooked peppercorns.

You can use green peppercorns in sauces, spreads, and dressings.

White & Pink Peppercorns

Medley of red, green, black and white peppercorns.

If you simply remove the skin of a black peppercorn, you’ll discover the fiery white spice that exists inside. They’re similar in taste, but, of course, the opposite in color. White peppercorns make an excellent addition to light-colored foods and cream sauces.

Pink (or red) peppercorns are completely ripened, which, in turn, creates a magnificent shade of red. Although they aren’t from the black peppercorn family, they still earn their right to the name thanks to their peppery kick. This delicate spice contains more fruity, citrus notes, so it tastes excellent on fish or as the main ingredient in a pink peppercorn sauce.

Unfortunately, pink peppercorns aren’t as easy to find at your local grocery store as the others. You’ll often see them blended with other peppercorns as a gourmet mix. Or, you can always order them online.

Sichuan Peppercorns

Finally, those red husks that surround the seed are used to create Sichuan peppercorns. The seeds themselves are far too gritty to consume, which is why they’re discarded.

Szechuan is a province in Southwestern China, where these peppercorns are a key ingredient in many popular dishes, hence, how they got their name. They’re also one of the main components of Chinese five-spice (the others are star anise, fennel seeds, whole cloves, and cinnamon sticks).

Sichuan peppercorns are often used in stir-fry, dumplings, and even salad dressings.

If you only take your pepper black, you’ve been missing out! It’s time to spice things up and explore the wider world of peppercorns. Your taste buds will thank you!

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