Western culinary traditions suggest that seasoning your food includes the addition of both Salt & Pepper, but in reality pepper is an unnecessary addition. However, I’ll concede to the point that it is a tasty addition. While salt enhances the inherent flavor of foods, pepper introduces new flavors to the party. With its historical culinary prominence around the world, there is good reason to keep this spice on hand at all times.
Peppercorns are derived from berries coming off the vine of a pepper plant. The plant is native to Southern Asia, and the peppercorns have a long history of moving throughout the world over trade routes. It’s thought that the western culinary traditions of predominantly utilizing salt & pepper comes down to one man, King Louis the XIV of France. Apparently, the king was a picky diner, and disdained spiced dishes, opting for the much lighter flavorings of salt and pepper. And it’s this pairing that we continue to utilize as our tabletop condiments of choice today.
There are a few true varieties of peppercorns. Green peppercorns are the unripened berries of the plant. Typically preserved in brine or freeze-dried, they have a milder and fruitier flavor than their more common counterparts. Black peppercorns are also unripened berries, but allowed to dry out. This causes the fruit to oxidize and darken around the seed. Black pepper has a sharp pungent flavor with a little bit of background heat. White peppercorns are simply the seed of the berry. The berries are allowed to ripen, then traditionally they are soaked until the fruit begins to decompose around the seed. Next, they undergo a process to remove the remaining fruit from the seed, which then has to be dried out. White pepper’s flavor is less complex, but has more heat and a slight fermented quality due to the soaking process. Pink peppercorns are derived from an entirely different plant from “true pepper,” and these dried berries have a fruitier, slightly sweet peppery flavor.
The addition of pepper gives a dish complexity and depth while providing a little heat to the palate through its pungency. While pre-ground pepper exists, fresh-cracked is always preferred. Whole peppercorns contain volatile compounds and oils that get released when the berry has been cracked by a grinder, releasing the full flavor of the peppercorn. These volatile compounds evaporate fairly quickly once introduced to air, leading to pre-ground pepper not having the same flavorful impact, talhough this can be taken advantage of in the right situations.
While salt might be the vital ingredient, it is pepper that’s bringing dimension and heat to the table. Its long and storied past has laid credence to why we find this pungent staple in our pantry cabinets today. While ubiquitous, we should keep in mind the time taken for pepper’s cultivation and the lengthy amount of travelling it undertakes to get into our kitchens, and try to truly appreciate what was once considered black gold.