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A Peppercorn Glossary

Confused about pepper?  Here are a few basic facts:

One Vine, Three Peppercorns: Black, white and green peppercorns are the fruit of the piper nigrum vine, which flourishes in the tropical heat and drenching monsoons of the world’s equatorial regions.  In India alone, there are over 75 piper nigrum cultivars.

Top Peppercorns Named for Point of Origin: As with wine, local terroir—the soil, its mineral composition, the amount of sunshine and rainfall—contributes dramatically to the flavor and aroma of the peppercorn.  Top-ranked peppercorns are named after the regions in which they are grown or the ports from which they are shipped.

Ripeness, Processing Determine Color:  Whether a peppercorn is black, white or green depends upon its ripeness when harvested and the way in which it was processed; these methods also affect taste and fragrance.

Some “Peppercorns” Are Imposters:  There are a few peppery-tasting spices that are not true peppercorns.  Among them are false “pink peppercorns,” Sichuan peppercorns and grains of paradise.
Our glossary includes thumbnail descriptions of:

white and
green peppercorns.

For true spice seekers, we also list:

pink peppercorns (true and false)
Sichuan peppercorns and
three exotics: grains of paradise, long pepper and cubebs.


Black Peppercorns

Family: Piperaceae

Botanical name: Piper nigrum

Key regions: India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Brazil, Australia

What are they? Mature, unripe peppercorns are plucked from the vine when green but fully formed, about six months after flowering. Berries are sun-dried, or scalded in boiling water and dried in the sun or in a kiln.  Either process activates an enzyme in the pericarp or outer shell, causing it to oxidize or turn black; at the same time, pungent principles, such as piperine, and fragrant essential oils develop, creating pepper’s characteristically pungent flavor and aroma.

Look for peppercorns named after their point of origin:

Tellicherry peppercorns:  India, Kerala, north of  Kochi.  Left longer on vine until berries turn yellow.  Unusually large and round; dark brown to black in color.  Complex, fully developed, robust flavor.  Pungent, almost intoxicating aroma.  Premium grade.

Malabar peppercorns: India, Kerala, south of Kochi.  Smaller than Tellicherry, slightly wrinkled, dark brown.  Bold flavor, pungent aroma.  Best mass-market grade.

Sarawak peppercorns: Malaysian Borneo.  Small, wrinkled, nearly black peppercorns. Light toasty flavor with fresh green notes; mild heat and aroma.  Favored by connoisseurs in Japan and other Asian countries.

Lampong peppercorns: Indonesia, island of Sumatra.  Small, dimpled, dark brown to black peppercorns.  Pleasant, almost fruity taste; hot; little aroma.  

Uses: The world’s universal spice.  Black pepper adds sizzle to meats, poultry, fish, sauces, curries, soups and stews; accents the natural sweetness of fresh shellfish; enlivens vinaigrettes, pasta, cheeses, pates, and vegetables dressed with olive oil or butter; underscores the sweetness of ripe fruit such as strawberries and pineapple; adds a touch of heat to cookies and other baked goods; marries well with chocolate; is an essential component of dozens of spice blends, including the French quatre epices, Moroccan ras al hanout, and Indian garam masala.


White Peppercorns

Family: Piperaceae

Botanical name: Piper nigrum

Key regions: Malaysia, Indonesia

What are they? Mature pepper berries are harvested when they turn yellow or red. Ripened berries are packed into jute bags or wooden barrels, soaked or washed in cool water to loosen the pericarp, rubbed clean and washed again to reveal the pale inner core of the peppercorn.  Dried in kilns or in the sun.  In general, white peppercorns have a sharp, hot flavor and relatively mild aroma, since the fragrant pericarp has been removed.

Look for peppercorns named after their point of origin:

Sarawak peppercorns: Malaysian Borneo.  The ne plus ultra of white pepper.  Very clean, creamy white peppercorns.  Left on the vine until ripe, picked by hand, and washed in cool, running spring water for up to two weeks.  Designated by the Malaysian government as “Sarawak Cream Label.”  A labor-intensive, premium-priced pepper with a rich “winey” flavor and a fiery afterburn.

Muntok peppercorns: Shipped from the port of Muntok on the island of Bangka, Indonesia.  Soaked in water until the outer shell loosens and is rubbed off.  Pale cream to light tan in color.  Hot, mildly fermented taste.  A good, all purpose white peppercorn.

Uses:  White pepper adds heat to cream sauces and dishes in which black flecks would be a distraction, or in which the flavor of black pepper is not desirable; favored for its pungency in the cuisines of Southeast Asia and of central and southern Europe.  Often combined with black peppercorns, as in French mignonette pepper (cracked black and white pepper).


Green Peppercorns

Family:  Piperaceae

Botanical name: Piper nigrum

Key regions: India, Madagascar

What are they? Green unripe pepper berries, usually harvested before they reach their full size.  Classified according to the way they are processed:  brined, dried and freeze dried.

Look for:
Brined green peppercorns:  Usually from Madagascar.  Packed in water and salt, most famously by Moulin Freres in a traditional green, white and black tin.  Firm, spicy, slightly resinous-tasting berries were a staple of nouvelle cuisine in dishes such as steak au poivre vert.  They can be used as an intriguing condiment for smoked salmon.

Dried green peppercorns: Immersed in boiling water and quickly dried to prevent oxidation.  Late-picked, premium peppercorns are large, slightly puckered, the color of green tea.  A fresh, pungent taste that can vary from mildly hot to fiery.  Firm enough to grind in a pepper mill.  Will plump up in hot water.  Use in pates and terrines, cream sauces for seafood and poultry; in canard poele; to season grilled pork and wild game; Thai green curries and stir fries.

Freeze dried green peppercorns:  Plump, round peppercorns with a bright green color and fresh, lightly spicy taste.  Not firm enough for grinding.  Can be crumbled over food after cooking.


True Pink Peppercorns

Family: Piperaceae

Botanical name: Piper nigrum

Key regions: India

What are they?  Pepper berries plucked when fully red and ripe.  Rare, except where pepper is grown; sold fresh, dried or pickled in brine.  In his encyclopedic website, Spice Pages, Austrian chemist Gernot Katzer writes that true pink pepper is “considerably more pungent and aromatic than green pepper, and it combines the spicy, mature flavour of black pepper with the fresh notes of green pepper.”

Uses: Pickled pink peppercorns must be rinsed before using.  In The Herb and Spice Bible, Ian Hemphill recommends crushing true pink peppercorns in a mortar and pestle “with a  little olive oil and even less vinegar” for salad dressing.


False Pink Peppercorns

Family: Anacardiaceae

Botanical name: Schinus terebinthifolius; S. areira; S. molle

Key regions: Island of Reunion; Australia; South America

What are they? Fruit of the Schinus tree, cultivated primarily on the island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean.  Rosy pink clusters of berries that contain a hard, dark brown seed within a soft papery shell.  The seed has a sweet, delicate flavor; mildly piquant; may have a bitter or resinous finish. Sold dried, freeze dried or pickled in brine.  Also known as baies roses.

Uses:  Dried “pink peppercorns” are often mixed with black, white and green pepper in glass jars, or in clear lucite mills, though Hemphill notes that the papery husks may jam the grinding mechanism.  Their sweetly piquant flavor enhances fresh seafood and salads; also good with game and other rich foods.  


Sichuan Peppercorns

Family: Rutaceae

Botanical name: Zanthaxylum piperitum 

Key Regions: Sichuan province, China; Japan.

What are they?  Small, berry-like fruit of the prickly ash tree, plucked when red and ripe.  When dried, the reddish brown, nubbly husks split open, releasing tiny black seeds. Warm, mildly pungent aroma; light citrus flavor; fizzing, tongue-numbing; some have a distinctly metallic after-taste which seems to disappear in cooking.

Uses:  The most characteristic spice in Sichuan cuisine; often combined with Sichuan red chiles in dishes such as gong bao chicken, or ground and mixed with salt as a dipping condiment.


Grains of Paradise

Family: Zingiberaceae

Botanical name: Cardamomum aframomum

Key regions: West Africa

What are they?  Small, hard, brown seeds of a shrub related to cardamom and ginger, grown in West Africa.  Also known as Melegueta pepper, after an ancient kingdom in the upper Niger region.  Quite hot and peppery tasting with hints of fruit and pine; can be numbing; may have a mildly resinous after taste.

Uses: A sought after spice in medieval Europe, both because of its distant origins and as a substitute for scarce black pepper after trade routes were disrupted.  Used to flavor aquavit and other alcoholic beverages; also in Tunisian stews and spice mixtures, and the Moroccan spice blend, ras al hanout.  A newly trendy seasoning in America; grind before using to release aroma and flavor.  Katzer recommends grains of paradise with potatoes, eggplant and pumpkin.


Long Pepper

Family: Piperaceae

Botanical name: Piper longum

Key regions: India; Indonesia

What is it?  Fruit of the piper longum vine; the most prized and expensive pepper in ancient Rome.  A long, dark brown dried peppercorn resembling a miniature pine catkin.  The Indonesian variety has a distinctly floral aroma and flavor which gives way to a slow, tongue-numbing burn.  Hemphill describes its aroma as “a cross between incense and orris root powder” and its flavor as “bitingly hot, lingering and numbing, belying its innocent smell.”  The Indian variety is smaller, less hot; produces a tingling sensation with a metallic aftertaste.

Uses:  Indonesian and Malaysian cuisine; Indian pickles; North African stews and spice mixtures such as ras al hanout.  In The Contemporary Encyclopedia of Herbs and Spices, Tony Hill recommends grinding long pepper to a powder and mixing it with fresh fruit or adding it to a vinegar coleslaw.


Cubeb Pepper

Family: Piperaceae

Botanical Name: Piper cubeba

Key region: Indonesia

What is it?  Fruit of the piper cubeba vine.  Also known as “tailed pepper,” because the round black peppercorns have a short stem that resembles a tail.  Pungency varies, from very hot to mild; flavor of allspice with piney undertones; bitter aftertaste.

Uses:  Widely used in medieval cookery; now mainly in Morocco, as a component of ras al hanout, and in Tunisia.  Tony Hill notes that cubebs are one of a trio of spices, including grains of paradise and juniper berries, that are used to flavor Bombay Sapphire Gin.