Substituting Black Pepper for White Pepper

By Cook's Illustrated Published May 2015

Can black pepper be substituted for white pepper in recipes?

Some recipes call for white pepper when uniformly light-colored results are desired. But if looks aren’t a consideration, does it matter if you substitute black pepper when a recipe specifies white? If it calls for a large enough amount—yes. We made two pots of hot and sour soup (which traditionally calls for white pepper), using 1 teaspoon of black pepper in one batch and 1 teaspoon of white pepper in the other. Tasters noted that the soup with black pepper was more aromatic and had more spicy heat but preferred the soup with white pepper for its floral, earthy flavor and greater complexity. However, when we tried the swap in a stir-fry that called for a lesser amount of white pepper, tasters had a hard time distinguishing them.

The difference in flavor between white and black pepper relates to how they are processed. To make black pepper, unripe berries from pepper plants are gathered and dried until the skins are blackened, which gives it its characteristic aroma and sharp bite. White peppercorns are fully ripened berries that have been soaked in water to ferment, and their outer skin is removed before drying. Although stripping the skin away removes much of the volatile oils and aroma compounds (most notably piperine, which is responsible for pepper’s pungent heat), allowing the berries to ripen longer lets them develop more complex flavor, while fermenting adds another layer of flavor.

So if you have a recipe that relies on a fair amount of white pepper for flavor, we don’t recommend swapping in the black type.

LESS HEAT, MORE COMPLEXITY: White pepper has a different flavor profile than black. Only substitute black pepper if the amount called for is small.