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(Salt and) Pepper


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Elizabeth David wrote about salt. She wrote whole book, in fact. It's short and wonderful and if you're stuck for a Christmas present, just the right size for a stocking. It was reading this book that got me thinking about pepper.

We use pepper so frequently and liberally it is hard to imagine it was once valuable enough to used as currency. Famously, Rome's ransom was paid (in part) by 3,000 pounds of pepper.

The following is a brief ramble through the ideas, information and, to some extent, the conclusions that I've come to about pepper. Most surprising of all is how little is generally said about something so pervasive.

Most people interested in food know that table salt has more in common with an industrial chemical than with something you'd want to eat. The anti-caking agent added to the purified salt allows the fine grains to run smoothly, but at the cost of adding bitterness. In any case flavoursome salt isn't a pure chemical, complex mineral impurities (iodine, magnesium, and even sulphur) add desirable character.

So well known are these facts that most supermarkets stock at least the option of Maldon sea salt, which is a brilliant and world-class product. It's not that much harder to find Fleur de Sel, rock salt, river salts or even smoked salt. Although quite what smoked salt is for I can't imagine.

Pepper tends to get overlooked. While most people realise that freshly ground pepper is generally superior to pre-ground it's unusual that the type of peppercorn gets a mention. I have also noticed that many otherwise knowledgeable cooks don't follow the basic rules of pepper use and abuse.

Peppercorns are really two things: the husk and the kernel. The black husk is the source of most of the complex pepper aromatics, while the white kernel accounts for the majority of the pepper's heat. There are a number of accounts which relate that pepper was used as the source of heat in highly spiced cuisines before the Portuguese exported chilli from South America (circa 1490). This may certainly be true of Malaysia and Thailand, where pepper vines grow natively. Pepper is certainly recorded as well established in the cuisine of India by the time it was invaded by Alexander the Great (around 300BC).

It is interesting to note that the heat from chilli is quite different to the heat from pepper and the two can be quite complimentary. White pepper, which is typically used for that very concentrated heat, is produced by stripping the husk from the kernel before the peppercorns are dried.

To an extent the drying process seals in the volatile components of the peppercorn, but like any product they will gradually lose their potency. Ground pepper (white or black) very quickly loses any culinary value, but this is not just a simple case of surface area. The coarseness to which a peppercorn is ground radically and immediately changes the character.

Fine grains produce almost no aromatic effect, unless you include a bit of sneezing. Cracked peppercorns are rich with deep aromatic complexity. Whole peppercorns are practically inert and impart very little to stocks or sauces. It is much better to crack peppercorns if they are to be strained-out before serving, or to coarsely grind them if they are to be left in.

There are a range of mills that can be used to grind peppercorns. As a rule of thumb the more expensive the mill the less useful it seems to be. Peppermills where the coarseness adjustment is a tightening nut on handle part of the mill tend to suffer from accidental tightening. Novel designs often fail to deliver a substantial amount of pepper for the effort put into using them. A classic mill with a coarseness adjustment which can't move during use works best. I have not yet been able to convince myself that ceramic or metal grinding mechanisms produce noticeably different results. A good, heavy, pestle and mortar generally works best of all.

The quality of the peppercorn used does have a dramatic effect on the culinary result. The standard supermarket peppercorn is a fairly bland product. Mechanical harvesting, used for mass production, must be supplemented with fairly brutal fumigation methods. Steam fumigation is disastrous for the flavour of the peppercorn. Chemical fumigation has been associated with health risks: the cheapest fumigation chemicals have been made illegal by some consuming nations, forcing producers to consider other methods. Irradiation is increasingly popular.

Hand-picking berries means that many of the problems corrected by fumigation do not occur in the first place. The question is a priority of cost or quality. Commercial pressure pushes producers to choose the cheapest methods of production and, over time, food standards change to exclude more and more chemicals as some become viewed as unsafe. Organic peppercorns cost more than non-organic but, especially as you will be eating the skin, there are good reasons to consider paying more.

Organic peppercorns are much livelier than the supermarket standard version, but it's still unusual see this pepper described as anything than a generic product.

In reality, even the same variety of pepper can become quite different peppercorns. Farmers who harvest the raw berries early avoid considerable losses to feeding birds. Less mature berries produce peppercorns with more subdued character. Allowing berries to ripen further on the vine produces larger peppercorns with a more matured flavour.

The drying process also changes the flavour of the end product: although it is here, arguably, that a high-tech solution (using warm air blowers in drying houses) improves upon the traditional method of sun-drying in the open.

In the 12 months or so when I indulged this small obsession with pepper, I eventually came across The Spice Shop in Notting Hill. Their web pages include a great start for anyone interested in tasting notes for individual peppercorn varieties. I would also point out that Lakeland provide a very reasonably priced supply of Wynad peppercorns.

A friend, and talented chef, grinds supermarket pepper to a fine dust and mixes it in a measured proportion with salt. This mixture gets deposited in a lovely pinch-pot and the mixture added when seasoning is required. As already discussed, the pepper in this concoction is basically dead. It also raises the point about when to add salt and pepper to a dish.

Unless specifically required I always add salt at the end of cooking to avoid drawing water out of what is being cooked. A notable exception is when sweating onion, where drawing out the liquid is actually what you want to do.

Pepper can survive and even benefit from the cooking process. Although the fragrance is usually best revived with a supplementary twist of pepper just before serving. In the same way as a tiny splash of fresh wine freshens any sauce based on a wine reduction.

In my own experiments with pepper I discovered an interesting phenomenon. As I was using better quality and more potent pepper, I was using rather less salt. This may simply be what psychologists refer to as an attention effect, but I'd be interested if other people have the same experience.

One of the most successful pieces of recipe experimentation was revisiting the combination of strawberries with pepper. I came across an interesting article by Russ Parsons on the topic of using simple sugar syrups. His infusions started with rose geranium and then with peppercorns, allowing fruit that could do with a bit of cheering up to have a bit of a soak in it.

The idea certainly belongs to Mr Parsons, my own preference is simply 6 freshly cracked Wynad peppercorns infused for 10 minutes in a cup of syrup. I use it more to anoint good strawberries (halved and brought to just below room temperature) rather than soak poorer ones, as the pepper syrup loses the freshness fairly quickly.

I should add, by way of conclusion, that I have no connection (financial or otherwise) with any of the suppliers mentioned above. Nor do I sell pepper or Elizabeth David books for a living. I am based in the UK and my comments are based on my experience as a consumer here. I'd be fascinated to hear if the same basic scenario exists elsewhere.

Handy References:





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I had no idea. Thanks for the information on fumigation techniques, now I can justify the organic peppercorns. :biggrin: Well written piece on an interesting topic.

Thanks. Fou

If only Jack Nicholson could have narrated my dinner, it would have been perfect.

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My goodness! What a stunning early contribution to our fine eGullet! Many thanks!

A question for you or others. I have just purchased a wonderful Peugeot peppermill (link for illustration only), which seems fantastic except that some of the Penzey's tellicherry peppercorns that we get are too big to fit into the grinding mechanism. This has been true with other peppermills, too; it's not just the Peugeot's fault.

I have done a little preliminary pre-cracking with mortar and pestle, but this kind of defeats the purpose. Any ideas out there?

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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Hmmm, I haven't really given it much thought but after reading your comments I realize now that I tend to use pepper more often than salt when cooking. Of course, having this monster of a peppermill helps sate my pepper "jones".

Thanks for the interesting read!

edited to add: I wonder when the eGCI will be up and running again? Besides seeing a condiments class from Andie, I'd love to see one on Pepper and one on Salt, two subjects that are far from ordinary.

Edited by Toliver (log)


“Peter: Oh my god, Brian, there's a message in my Alphabits. It says, 'Oooooo.'

Brian: Peter, those are Cheerios.”

– From Fox TV’s “Family Guy”


Tim Oliver

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Thanks for the information. I had suspected that the heat in pepper differs from that in chilies, as I can tolerate more from pepper.

Also, I could never discern any pepper flavor from adding whole peppercorns to stocks, poached chicken and the like, so will crack those corns from now on.

When I want to raise the heat/flavor from pepper, I tend to mix several kinds rather than add more of just one. I combine cayenne, black pepper, white pepper, red pepper flakes, paprika and hot pepper sauces in different combinations until the desired flavor results.

Ruth Dondanville aka "ruthcooks"

“Are you making a statement, or are you making dinner?” Mario Batali

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Fantastically written first post, this year for me has been the year of foam and jelly, next year am contmplating a year of historical classicism as it is quite easy to be jaded with what can be achieved and forget the roots from which everything culinary stems.

however my relevant bit to this thread is:

whilst preparing for olympia a few years ago, I spent a little time finding a black pepper to mill over my confit of quince to go with a duck dish. I came across a bag of Madagascar peppercorns which had a more subtle warmth, so used these.

can't have been all bad, got a merit for my first competition.

Sadly this year went a bit overboard on what I thought would be clever and got bugger all!


after all these years in a kitchen, I would have thought it would become 'just a job'

but not so, spending my time playing not working


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Thank you all for your kind comments. For me it’s nice to vent a little, having spent a ridiculous amount of time tinkering about with pepper.

Chrisamirault: Fantastic to hear you can get the tellicherry peppercorns. I tend to favour my pestle and mortar, which is a huge lump of granite and does all the work for me. Interested to hear if anyone has a tried and tested mill that copes with the larger peppercorns. Fyi: I picked up December’s Gourmet magazine at lunchtime and lo! A peppermill consumer test. I think a Peugeot came out top, so you clearly have an eye for quality.

My personal favourite mill is a free once that came fitted to a jar of cheap peppercorns. I am too ashamed to admit how much money I spent and how many mills I bought this year, but if I use a mill, of them all it’s the free one I like best.

Tarka: Hi, fancy seeing you out here! So there’s a recipe gullet… I did wonder where all the recipes were. I think, apart from the syrup recipe included, the recipes I used for testing were the sort of thing you would expect. I did do a modified John “formulas for flavour” Campbell pepper ice-cream, but using a traditional custard base rather than his liquid glucose soft-scoop. Strawberry and pepper jam was really just an extension of the syrup idea. I’ll have a look in recipeGullet and have a think. Those tomatoes sound yummy! :biggrin:

Toliver: That is a whopper! I wondered if there might be something in the new Harold McGee on pepper. My old edition is sketchy, apart from identifying both piperine and capsaicin as alkaloids. If I remember correctly, the physical effect is supposed to be that the pain receptors stimulated by the alkaloid have a sympathetic reaction with the taste receptors. Exactly the opposite of putting a hot water bottle on a tummy ache. As ruthcooks post underlines, the explanation as to how they actually improve flavours must be more complicated than that, as these different peppers and chillies work together, as well as having their own actual flavours.

Alexw: It’s reassuring to be amongst so many other monomaniacs. Your post raises lots of questions for me and, as I’ve so enjoyed since starting reading eGullet, prompts me to find out about things like foams and jellies. I must say, of all the peppers in terms of something unusual the Long Pepper is worth looking into. I’m sure there’s something technically interesting to be made of its numbing effect.

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I'm very interested by the notion that some herbs and spices are assumed to sit on different parts of an imaginary sliding scale between sweet and savoury.

Probably convention rearing its ugly head, of course, but there seems to have been a trend away from highly spiced, fragrant british cooking as practised in wealthier households of the 15th and 16th centuries, to the plain boiled English fare as practised by the Blackpool landlady c.1950-1980.

We now seem to be more free with herbs and spices, but once more the (perhaps unconscious) notions of sweet/savoury herbs and spices are being blurred.

I've long been a fan of using aromatics in pastrywork that have been more accustomed to being used in the hot kitchen; black pepper, chilli, thyme, bay, savory and pennyroyal, to name a few. Some of the more exotic ones produce results that are more curious than workable, but all experimentaiton is good.

You may or may not be amazed (most people are) to find what a pinch of salt can do to the flavour of sweet dishes; two obvious examples are shortbread and caramels.

Thanks for a very informative post; my copy of Salt, Spices and Aromatics is well-thumbed, and sadly near falling apart - I need to get ebaying, I think.

Allan Brown

"If you're a chef on a salary, there's usually a very good reason. Never, ever, work out your hourly rate."

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I have many pepper creepers growing here in my Goan garden, and they bear fruit all year round, so the supply is extremely plentiful - certainly enough to keep us, and all our friends, well stocked with this spice.

Green, tender (and not fully ripe) peppercorns can be added to many dishes, particularly sauces accompanying fish or chicken. The fiery explosion when they pop in the mouth is an absolutely addictive sensation - or they can be mashed and added to anything you fancy. I like them in salad dressings as well as homemade mayonnaise, for example.

When the peppercorns are fully ripe (and black), they can be dried (here, in the sun), and stored in closed jars. To revive the flavour, if needed, they can be slightly toasted in a dry saute' pan before cracking or grinding by hand.

Also, green peppercorns can be packed tightly in jars, and a syrup of white wine vinegar and sugar added on top to cover. Optional, 1 tablespoon salt.

Or: a simple sugar and water syrup can be used (no salt) to top the peppercorns.

After 1 month the resulting liquid can be used to drizzle on strawberries, or try it on ice cream!

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A very interesting point about the changing attitudes to spices. Of course, most Elizabethans were constantly drunk: “Merry England” being an exact term; the water supply in cities was so polluted that it was cheaper to drink beer or wine. It’s amazing they didn’t invent the kebab.

Salted caramel certainly was a suprise. I think I first came across the notion through those talented folk at l'artisan du chocolat. Quite a few old gingerbread recipes (I'm thinking of Martha Washington's Booke of Cookery) include black pepper and molasses.

Now green peppercorns in white wine syrup... Ooo, sounds yummy!

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