How we tested
Don’t be fooled by their name or appearance: The small, reddish brown husks called Sichuan peppercorns aren’t peppercorns at all. They’re the dried fruit rinds from a small Chinese citrus tree called the prickly ash. Though typically ground and added to spicy dishes, they don’t contribute heat. Instead, they contribute a unique tingling or buzzing sensation much like carbonation, which is due to a pungent compound called sanshool that acts on receptors that usually respond to touch. According to research conducted by the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London, the peppercorns don’t actually vibrate our skin, but they send signals to the brain that we interpret as a vibration; some also mistakenly perceive these signals as heat. For decades these rinds were banned in the United States for being potential carriers of a harmful citrus virus, but since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration lifted that ban in 2005, a number of products (all imported from China) are now available. To see if any one stood out, we tried five samples cracked over white rice (which left our brave tasters’ tongues buzzing for minutes) and ground in our recipe for our Cook's Illustrated Crispy Salt and Pepper Shrimp.
Like dried beans, all Sichuan peppercorns must be picked through to remove debris. While finding twigs or even thorns isn’t an indication of poor quality, a too-mild aroma is. We were pleased to find that each product smelled fresh and potent. We detected everything from deep, earthy notes of pine and black tea to the more floral, herbal fragrance of citrus and mint, which translated to the same complex spectrum of flavors. Whether sprinkled over rice or cooked with other flavorings in the shrimp, the peppercorns had a unique taste and aroma that stood out. We also loved how every brand highlighted the natural sweetness of the shrimp. When we evaluated the trademark tingle, our tasters preferred those with the most pronounced effect. Our favorite combined “earthy, piney flavor” and a “sharp,” “zippy” tingle. Meanwhile, the runner-up from had a citrusy sweetness and a tingle that builds but “never gets too blistering.” It’s our Best Buy.