Ground black pepper is one of the most ubiquitous and well-loved spices in the world. It holds a place of honor next to salt on restaurant tables and at kitchen workstations and appears in at least 2,000 of our recipes, from cacio e pepe to steak au poivre. No matter the recipe, we love its balanced heat and earthy, toasty flavor.
All true peppercorns are harvested from Piper nigrum, a vining plant native to the Indian state of Kerala, which is located on the Malabar Coast. While peppercorns have been cultivated and used in Indian cooking since 2000 BC, we know that by AD 100 they were heavily traded throughout Europe and Asia. In the Roman cookbook Apicius—one of the oldest surviving cookbooks—black pepper is listed as an ingredient in 80 percent of the recipes. Today, black peppercorns are grown in tropical climates throughout the world, with Vietnam being the largest producer.
A peppercorn’s color—green, white, or black—depends on when it was picked and how it was treated. Black peppercorns may be labeled with their place of origin, such as Lampong (Indonesia), Malabar (India), Vietnam, or Ethiopia. While these all come from the same plant, variations in terroir and climate may make the flavor unique.
Then there are Tellicherry black peppercorns, which are often lauded by many as the best in the world. Tellicherry peppercorns have two defining characteristics. First, they are grown in India. Second, Tellicherry peppercorns are 4 millimeters or larger in size. According to experts, larger peppercorns have less heat and more robust, aromatic flavors. Nearly any given peppercorn harvest in India will contain a mix of regular and Tellicherry peppercorns, with Tellicherry peppercorns representing 10 to 20 percent of the crop.
Once ripe and harvested, all the peppercorns are treated the same way. They are boiled briefly and then dried in the sun until they take on a black, shriveled appearance. Once dried, the peppercorns are taken to distribution facilities where they are shaken between a series of screens to sort them according to size. The largest peppercorns are graded as Tellicherry and sold at a premium on the global market.
What’s all the fuss about Tellicherry peppercorns? Are they worth seeking out for their superior flavor, or will regular supermarket black peppercorns do? To find out, we gathered 10 whole black peppercorn products, four Tellicherry and six regular. Most of the products were supermarket top sellers, but we also included two mail-order Tellicherry products we’ve liked in previous tastings.
Our first challenge was to figure out how to taste the peppercorns. Grinding them and sampling them plain left our mouths numb after just two samples, so we changed direction. We coarsely ground the peppercorns, mixed them with cooked white rice, and tasted them. The differences among the products were subtle, but we did notice slight variations: Some of the peppers were fragrant and floral, while others were just hot. Despite these flavor nuances, all the peppers were perfectly acceptable, with the exception of one product that was a bit too earthy and musty.
However, most of us don’t typically eat spoonfuls of ground pepper mixed into plain white rice, so we decided to sample the products in more realistic cooking applications. We rounded up dishes in which the pepper flavor was prominent enough for us to really home in on differences but wasn't overpowering. Our team conducted tasting after tasting: cacio e pepe, steak au poivre, pepper-crusted beef tenderloin, pepper and ricotta crostini, and even ground pepper sprinkled on plain cucumbers—but the flavor variations among the products were too subtle to truly make or break a dish.
We had the best luck when we tried the ground peppers stirred into a simple egg salad. The flavor differences among brands was still subtle, but we were able to pick up on the aromatic floral notes in some peppers that we'd tasted in the rice test. Once again, one product was singled out for overly earthy, almost mushroomy flavor and dull heat. However, all the other peppercorns were perfectly acceptable. They provided balanced levels of heat, and some featured pleasant hints of citrus and warm spice or woodsy notes.
In our tastings, we didn’t have a clear preference for Tellicherry peppercorns. In fact, the pepper we deemed overly musty and earthy was a Tellichery product from the mail-order brand Kalustyan’s. Because this product received our highest recommendation in a previous tasting of black peppercorns, we ordered and sampled multiple jars and noted dull heat and mustiness in every batch, despite the peppercorns all being within their sell-by date. Kalustyan’s wouldn’t tell us if it had changed anything about its product, but peppercorns—like many spices—are subject to variations in weather, climate, and harvesting that could account for the unpleasant flavors we noted.
Most other manufacturers wouldn’t share specifics about the origin of their peppercorns, but we learned that many use a blend of peppercorns harvested from around the world depending on what’s available and fresh. Ultimately, our tasting results showed no preference for Tellicherry peppercorns. Furthermore, when we measured a sample of peppercorns from each product, we found that almost all the peppercorns in our lineup would be large enough to qualify as Tellicherry peppercorns. Though this designation is usually given only to peppercorns sourced from India, it could explain why all the peppercorns in our lineup were plenty fragrant and earthy.
Our biggest takeaway from this tasting is that you should always buy whole black peppercorns and grind them yourself (see “Preground versus Whole Peppercorns”). When compared to preground peppercorns, freshly ground peppercorns were described by tasters as being “fragrant,” “floral,” and “bright.” Two of the brands whose products we tasted make this easier by offering their peppercorns in jars with built-in grinders, and we confirmed with these companies that these peppercorns are indeed the same type we tasted, just in different packaging.
We think you’ll get good results with almost any of the whole black peppercorns we tasted, but we gave our highest recommendation to Tone’s Whole Black Peppercorns. This product was mildly spicy and had fragrant, citrusy notes; it's available nationally at Walmart. For black pepper aficionados who want a bit more heat, our runner-up was Penzeys Whole Tellicherry Indian Peppercorns, which had a “perfumy” aroma and “zingy” spiciness.