Often in kitchens, when we talk about pepper, we talk about the powder ground from black peppercorns. Rarely do we pay much attention to other types of peppercorns unless a recipe calls for it. Yet, even then, we often think we can use the black peppercorns at the back of the cupboard waiting to refill a pepper grinder. But can we use them interchangeably? And if we can’t, what should we do with all these types of peppercorns?
What are Peppercorns?
The traditional types of peppercorns come from the same flowering vine. These common peppercorns include black and white, but also the green variety. What makes these peppercorns different is how they are picked and processed. If I were to stick to flowers picked from the flowering plants, this article would limit itself to those 4 types of peppercorns. However, as with everything, listing peppercorns is complicated by other peppercorns that aren’t types of peppercorns.
The 4 Types of Peppercorns
Black peppercorns make the ground black pepper found in almost every kitchen everywhere. They are what we think of when we think of the spice pepper and are often ubiquitous with the phrase salt, to taste. Black peppercorns are full-sized but aren’t ripe, starting their life of green. When picked, they’re dried in the sun, which allows the skin to blacken, resulting in a wrinkled, rough exterior and crunchy texture. Black peppercorns are the strongest tasting of the types of peppercorns.
White peppercorns have been allowed to mature and turn red in colour. Once picked, they are soaked and scrubbed to remove this outer casing. This reveals the white colour beneath the reddish skin. As they lose the blacked skin, white peppercorns are smoother than their black counterparts and have a milder but earthier flavour. These peppercorns are best used in white sauce where you wouldn’t want visible specs of black pepper, such as bechamel sauce or mashed potatoes. The white peppercorn is also a predominant spice used in Asian cooking.
Green peppercorns are the unripe type of peppercorn. They have a fruitier flavour than white or black peppercorns. This is a result of being picked before fully ripening. This also gives them a fresher-tasting spiciness than black peppers’ stronger kick. They are sometimes found dry in the spice aisle but are often pickled or brined, resulting in a softer peppercorn. Green peppercorns are best used whole or lightly chopped as they’re softer. They can be found most often in classic French sauces such as steak au poivre or steak with peppercorn sauce.
I must be honest, but I’ve never encountered red peppercorns in my local supermarkets. They are the ripened berries of the same plant. They are sweeter but still spicy. The high sugar content in these fully ripened peppercorns means they spoil quicker and are most often used in brine.
Other Types of Peppercorns
Szechuan peppercorns aren’t actually related to the traditional peppercorns. They’re still berries but derive from mountain ash trees in China’s Szechuan province, hence their name. They are an aromatic type of pepper with a flavour reminiscent of citrus fruits. While they’re not particularly spicy, some people, myself included, report a tingling sensation on the tongue after eating Szechuan peppercorns. They are the peppercorns used in the classic Chinese salt and pepper chicken dish.
There are many types of Peppercorns or plants named after peppers. For example, allspice is often called Jamaican pepper, and while it’s a berry, it’s totally unrelated to peppercorns. Likewise, the dry spice cayenne pepper derives from dried chilli peppers. Chilli peppers and peppercorns happen to share a name.