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Black pepper (Piper nigrum), alone with salt, is the most widely used seasoning in the United States. Pepper accounts for 1/4 of the world spice production, about 124,000 tons per year. The pepper plant produces a black fruit or peppercorn that is usually ground. Black pepper is the most pungent and flavorful of all types of peppers. Other varieties of peppercorns made from the black pepper plant are green and white. White pepper is produced by removing the outer black skin of the peppercorn and tastes more aromatic, with less bite, than black pepper. Green peppercorns are picked while still unripe and green in color, while white peppercorns are picked once very ripe and subsequently soaked in the brine to remove their dark outer shell, leaving just the white pepper seed. Green peppercorns taste aromatic and have a unique herb taste that is lacking in black pepper.
Indigenous to India, the black pepper plant has played a central role in global economic and cultural history and has been a prized spice since ancient times. In ancient Greece, pepper was held in such high regard that it was used not only as a seasoning but also as a currency and sacred offering. In classical times, tributes were paid with pepper, and both Attila the Hun and Alaric I the Visigoth demanded pepper as a substantial part of Rome’s ransom.
The history of the spice trade could be considered the history of pepper, the king of spices. During the middle ages, pepper was at the center of the European spice street, with Genoa and Venice dominating the market. The Italian pepper monopoly of overland trade routes was the major factor driving the search for an eastern sea route as well as Columbus' desire to find a western route. This desire lead not only to the exploration of many undiscovered lands but also to the development of major merchants cities in Europe and the Middle East.
Pepper became cherished because it served key culinary purposes. It’s pungency could spice up otherwise bland foods, and, perhaps more important, it could disguise a food's lack of freshness, and especially important quality in the times before efficient means of preservation. This allowed food to be kept longer, thus conferring a significant economic advantage. Currently, the major producers of pepper are India and Indonesia.
Pepper was also valued for its medicinal applications for treatment of digestive disorders. Black pepper has diaphoretic, carminative, and diuretic properties. It also stimulates the taste buds in a manner that causes an increase in stomach acid secretion, thereby improving digestion. Black pepper has demonstrated impressive antioxidant and antibacterial properties as well, and the outer layer of the peppercorn has been proven to stimulate the breakdown of fat cells.
Many of the benefits of black pepper are due to the compound piperine. Piperine has been shown to:
SELECTION & STORAGE
Black pepper is available hole, cracked, or ground into powder. To ensure the best flavor, buy whole peppercorns and grind them yourself in a mill just before adding to the recipe. In addition to their superior flavor, buying whole peppercorns will help to ensure that you are purchasing unadulterated pepper, since ground pepper is often mixed with other spices. Whole peppercorns should be heavy, compact, and free from any blemishes. And, as with other dried spices, try to purchase organically grown black pepper, since organically grown spices are much less likely to have been irradiated.
Black pepper should be kept in a tightly sealed glass container in a cool, dark, and dry place. Whole peppercorns will keep almost indefinitely, while ground pepper will remain fresh for about three months. Pepper can also be frozen, although this will make its flavor more pronounced.
TIPS FOR USE
Pepper is best ground directly onto food. Since the aromatic oils and black pepper lose their flavor and aroma if heated for too long, it is best to add it near the end of cooking process. For many, the familiar taste of pepper is a welcome addition to any dish.
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