Pepper has been long hailed as the king of spice. One of the most sought-after seasonings in ancient times, these powerful little berries remain as popular as ever in cuisines around the world.
It’s easy to see why. Pepper can be used in just about any type of dish, both savory and sweet. It’s the natural companion to salt for most basic seasonings. And while black pepper is the most familiar form of this spice, there are many other types, each with its own distinct characteristics.
Black pepper offers a warm, woodsy aroma emphasized by fresh citrus tones that sometimes contain a hint of clove. While white pepper lacks the fragrance of black pepper, it delivers pungent flavor. Green peppercorns have both a mild aroma and a mild pungency.
All of these peppercorns come from the same plant, a vine that originated in the Malabar region of western India and is now grown in several Asian countries. Black, white and green berries are harvested at different points of ripeness and diversely processed to create the three distinct products.
At Whole Spice, we also carry naturally sun-dried Burgundy peppercorns. These black pepper berries are hand-harvested late in the season, for a more intense flavor and complex aroma. We source them from a farm in Quang Tri, Vietnam, a country where some of the world’s best spices are grown.
And then there’s the pink peppercorn, which comes from a shrub grown in South America and has such a delicately floral flavor that it is best used on its own.
Pepper adds a nicely spicy bite to an assortment of fruits, such as strawberries or poached pears. It isn’t uncommon to see black pepper used in sweet baked goods, such as shortbreads and Scandinavian Christmas cookies.
Pepper also acts to suppress other flavors. When combined with sugar, it can diminish the sweetness; so a black pepper ice cream will not only have the flavor and bite of pepper, it also will taste less sweet than a regular ice cream. Pepper can also modify salty flavors: if you over-salt something, adding black or white pepper to it can decrease the saltiness.
When buying whole peppercorns, grind them for each use and store the rest in an airtight container away from light. If purchasing ground pepper, the highest quality will have a pale-gray speckled appearance rather than looking extremely dark.
Black peppercorns are white peppercorns with a dark outer hull, and after they are ground both white and black elements appear. Every now and then, black peppercorns may not contain the firm white center, which means that these peppercorns are lower grade, and less expensive. A ground pepper that is exceptionally dark contains a higher percentage of empty peppercorns!
How often do you use peppercorns? I can’t remember a time when I didn’t use freshly ground pepper, which brings me to this week’s recipe. Try these easy-to-make fries to satisfy cravings for both salty and sweet flavors:
Sweet Potato Fries
3 small sweet potatoes
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1/4 tsp. ground pepper — your choice
1/4 tsp. sea salt
Preheat oven to 380 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a sheet tray with parchment.
Peel sweet potatoes and cut into long chunky pieces. In a large bowl, coat the pieces with oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Spread pieces in a single layer on a greased or parchment-lined baking sheet, making sure not to overcrowd them. Bake, turning occasionally, until the sweet potatoes are tender and golden brown, about 20 minutes.
Let cool 5 to 10 minutes before serving.
Note: This is a perfect side dish to serve along with a fresh salad. You can also use any seasonings you like, such as garlic salt or Ras el Hanout.