Published November 1, 2008. From Cook's Illustrated.
You only use a grind or two on your food, so does it really matter what brand of peppercorn you buy?
Beyond its heat and sharp bite, black pepper enhances our ability to taste food, stimulating our salivary glands so we experience flavors more fully. But this effect only comes from freshly ground pepper. Once the hard, black shell of the peppercorn is cracked open, its aroma immediately starts to fade, and most of its flavor and scent disappear within a half hour. Not surprisingly, we have never found a preground pepper worth buying. In fact, replacing your pepper shaker with a good pepper mill is one of the simplest ways to enhance your cooking. But can choosing a better variety of peppercorn improve it even more?
Until recently, spice brands sold in supermarkets never specified the origin or variety of their peppercorns, as they simply bought the cheapest they could get. But specialty spice retailers offering multiple varieties bearing exotic names such as Sarawak, Lampong, Malabar, and Tellicherry have raised consumer awareness and now, two of the largest supermarket brands have added “gourmet” Tellicherry peppercorns to their lines. Though Tellicherry is generally considered to be the world’s finest pepper, all true peppercorns—black, green, and white—actually come from the same plant, Piper nigrum. Native to India, this flowering vine is now grown in many other tropical areas close to the equator, including Vietnam, Ecuador, Brazil, and Madagascar. It sprouts clusters of berries that are dried and treated to become peppercorns. Like grapes, coffee beans, and cacao beans, the flavor of peppercorns depends on where it is cultivated, when the berries are picked, and how they are processed. But all peppercorns are defined by the heat-bearing compound piperine, which perks up our taste buds. Their complex flavor and aroma also come from volatile oils called terpenes, which contribute notes of turpentine, clove, and citrus; and pyrazines, which provide earthy, roasty, green vegetable aromas. While most peppercorns are picked as soon as the immature green berries appear on the vine, Tellicherry berries (named after a port town in the state of Kerala on India’s Malabar Coast) are left to ripen the longest. This allows the pepper’s flavor to fully develop, becoming deeper and more complex, even a little fruity—not just sharp, hot, and bright like peppercorns made from younger berries. But given that we generally use just a few grinds of pepper on our food, would we be able to detect such differences?
To find out, we sampled Tellicherry peppercorns from the two largest supermarket brands against six of the other most popular supermarket brands. Priced from about $1.35 to $2.22 per ounce, most of these brands did not specify variety. As we tasted each black pepper freshly ground with optional white rice, it was immediately clear that there were big differences among brands. Some were searingly hot, others mild; some one-dimensional, others complex. Only two peppers impressed our tasters enough to be recommended without reservation. The most widely available peppercorns in the country were not recommended at all, finishing dead last.
If fancier supermarket peppercorns were good, would peppercorns from specialty merchants taste better? We ordered some online to find out. We focused on Tellicherry peppercorns for their stellar reputation, choosing six mail-order brands to pit against our two supermarket winners.
Though tasters detected a range of flavor nuances from brand to brand, final rankings were close. We gave top marks to highly aromatic peppercorns with complex flavor, and preferred moderate rather than strong heat, which tended to overpower any other taste. Peppercorns also lost points for having an alluring aroma with no flavor to back it up. Our favorite peppercorn was the fresh, earthy, and moderately hot Tellicherry sold by a Manhattan emporium online. Coming in as a close second, however, was one of the supermarket winners. As with the winning brand, tasters praised this pepper for being spicy but not too hot, as well as fresh, fragrant, and floral. Sampled against this steep competition, our other supermarket Tellicherry brand was deemed “unremarkable.”
So what would account for differences in the flavor and heat levels of the Tellicherry peppercorns, when they all come from the same region? The most important factor probably has to do with differences in cultivars, or varieties, of the plant itself, which grows on plantations in the state of Kerala, an area about the size of the Netherlands. Though none of the spice companies we spoke to would share details of the processing methods used by their suppliers, these approaches can also influence taste—peppercorns can be picked by hand or by machine, dried in the sunlight or a kiln, even boiled. Storage also has an impact on flavor. Peppercorns that are subjected to too much heat or moisture grow musty-smelling mold and bacteria, all the while losing flavor. In fact, some peppercorns, including our winner, get a special cleaning in the United States before they go on sale, restoring freshness after months at sea.
Now that we had our winners, an important question remained: Would a better pepper’s complexity be evident if we just added the usual pinch or two in cooking? We chose polar opposites—our winner and the bottom-ranked peppercorns from our supermarket tasting—and sampled them stirred into scrambled eggs and tomato soup. Interestingly, with pepper as a mere accent, the distinctions between these two very differently rated brands became difficult to detect: Votes were split as to which brand tasted better.
But what if peppercorns are one of the main attractions, as in steak au poivre, which is thickly crusted with crushed peppercorns and pan-seared? We compared steaks made with three different brands. This time, the nuances of the peppercorns came through, with tasters echoing their original assessments. Our winner impressed tasters most for its “fruity, pungent, really complex berrylike flavors,” while our second place finisher came in right behind it with a “very bold, full flavor.” The other brand ranked a few steps down from those top two—just as it had in the plain tasting.
The verdict? In applications that call for a small dose, any pepper will be fine as long as it is freshly ground. But if you’re cooking a peppery specialty, or you like to grind fresh pepper over your food before eating, choosing a superior peppercorn can make a difference.