This spice dominated the spice trade for centuries. However, despite its name, peppercorns have no relation to peppers or corn. Peppercorns are the fruit of a tropical climbing vine native to South India. The fruits are harvested and dried. Through different processes of harvesting, drying and preserving, the peppercorns develop different colors and flavor profiles.
Black peppercorns are harvested when the fruits have grown to their full-size, at this point though they are green and still unripe. They turn into the familiar black color during the drying process where an enzyme is activated, oxidizing the peppercorn which turns it black. Along with other components, a volatile oil containing piperine and oleoresins are also created which all contribute to the robust taste and fragrance of black pepper.
Black Tellicherry Peppercorns are regarded as one of the highest quality peppercorns in the world. From the Malabar Coast of India, this peppercorn is round and plump, with a mellow and complex flavor, moderate heat, and subtle fruity notes. It can be used for any situation that calls for black pepper.
Lampong Black Peppercorns come from Indonesia. They have a modest heat, but a more intense fragrance then the Tellicherry Peppercorns, which belies the mild pungency of the Lampong. These smaller peppercorns have some notes of pine or citrus and their heat will linger for a while.
Green Peppercorns are the unripe pepper berries, which come from the same vine as the black peppercorns, hence they retain their original green color. There are several different ways to preserve the green color. One method is to boil the peppercorns before drying to prevent the enzyme from oxidizing the peppercorn. Other ways are pickling them in a brine or freeze drying them. These processes make the green peppercorns milder and less pungent than their black counterparts. They’re often used in French dishes like steak au poivre or on rich foods like pork or game.
White peppercorns are black peppercorns, which have had their dark outer layer removed through being soaked in water. They retain the bite of black pepper but without the same robustness and dominance that black pepper brings. They often have a little fermented flavor and thus are often used in Thai and Japanese cooking where chefs meld the fermented flavors with the lighter and fresh flavors.
Pink Peppercorns are not related to black peppercorns but due to their similar peppery flavor and look are often placed in the same category. Pink peppercorns come from the Peruvian Pepper tree, which is related to the cashew tree. Thus, people with tree nut allergies should be cautious. Pink peppercorns have a sharp, spicy-sweet flavor with a hint of citrus. Their delicate structure makes them unsuitable for a pepper grinder, but they can be easily crushed with a mortar and pestle or the end of a heavy knife. Try them as an exotic replacement for black pepper, lightly sprinkled over game or seafood, or even nibble on them whole as a part of a cheese plate or drop one of them into a craft cocktail to add a bit of color and spice.
Sichuan (Szechuan) Peppercorns are also not actually peppercorns, but the berries of the prickly ash tree native to China. It is usually the outer shell of the berry which is used. Sichuan Peppercorns are a central element in Szechuan cuisine giving the unique “numbness” or tingling sensation on the tongue, rather than the heat or pungency of black peppercorns. The flavor is warm, sharp and citrusy.
Grains of Paradise are in the ginger family and are also related to cardamom. It is a staple in West African cuisine. It can be used in place of black pepper (hence it is often discussed in the peppercorn category) but adds the unique notes of cloves, cardamom, and ginger. When looking for something with a little different flavor than black peppercorns, this is the spice to use. It is excellent when ground and used as a rub on meats and poultry, in stews or in a salad dressing.
While it may seem a bit overwhelming to figure out what kind of peppercorns to use, there are no wrong answers. Each option will bring some unique and interesting level of complexity to your cooking. A good way to start is to experiment with your tried and true recipes and see how different peppercorns affect the taste.