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Pantry Staples: Pepper

Everything you need to know about this delicious seasoning.

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Our pantry staples series sees us take a look at the ingredients that most people usually have in their kitchens – chickpeas, beans, noodles and the like. This time we're focusing on pepper.

Salt and pepper go hand in hand, with both used in tandem to create the ultimate sense of balanced flavour in any dish. Pepper comes in many different varieties, which we will explore here, but black pepper is the most common.

The Origin Of Pepper

Pepper is native South and Southeast Asia and is thought to have been used in Indian cooking for over 4,000 years, which was an important source for this spice. The area now known as Kerala was famous for exporting black pepper, as well as other spices, during the spice trade. So popular was the spice, that it used to be known as black gold and was a highly regarded trade good.

Peppercorns are technically dried fruit, as weird as that might sound, as they come from the pepper plant, which is a woody vine. The plant is quite particular, as it needs to grow in areas that are neither too dry or too moist, that are well drained and have rich soil.

As of 2016, Vietnam is the world's largest producer and exporter of black peppercorns, producing around 39 per cent of the world's black peppercorns, followed by Indonesia, India and Brazil. In terms of popularity, peppercorns are the world's most spice, making up around 20 per cent of all trade imports. 

Calum Lewis on Unsplash.
Calum Lewis on Unsplash.

What's The Difference Between Different Types Of Pepper?

There are so many different types of pepper that you can be forgiven for getting a little confused at the thought of which variety to use. Black pepper, which is by far the most common, is produced from the unripe, greenish fruit of the pepper plant. The fruit is briefly cooked in hot water, which helps the peppercorn to brown. It is then left to dry for several days, during which the peppercorn turns black. Black pepper has the most distinctive flavour of all peppercorns known for its pungent and aromatic notes.

White pepper, which is used in a lot of French cooking to avoid discolouration in white sauces, has a much stronger, spicier flavour than its counterparts. It is made solely from the seed of the fruit of the pepper plant, with the skin removed after it has been soaked. As the flavour is strong it should be used with as light touch. 

Like black pepper, green pepper is made from the unripe fruit. The peppercorns are treated with sulphur dioxide, freeze-dried, canned or pickled to ensure they turn green. Pink peppercorns, which have come into vogue in recent years, come from the fruits of a Peruvian pepper tree or the Brazilian pepper tree, which are members of the tree nut family – be careful not to serve them to someone with a nut allergy.

Getty Images.
Getty Images.

Recipe Inspiration

There are lots of recipes that prominently use pepper here on the site, like this salt and pepper squid and this black pepper squid from Saba. Our favourite recipe using pepper is always traditional pepper sauce. Try out our no-fail recipe below.

Peppercorn Sauce

Serve 8

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 4 large shallots, finely diced
  • 3 tablespoons brined green peppercorns, drained
  • 180ml brandy
  • 200ml red wine
  • 400ml beef stock
  • 240ml cream

Method:

  1. Melt the butter in a pan over a medium heat, then cook the shallots and peppercorns until the have softened without colour, about 10 minutes
  2. Add the brandy and cook off until nearly evaporated.
  3. Add the wine and increase the heat. Boil until the wine is reduced by half, then add the stock and reduce by about two-thirds.
  4. Stir in the cream and cook until thickened.
  5. Taste for seasoning then serve with steak.