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Sichuan Peppercorns

From Sweet and Spicy Asian Specialties

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.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*
Recommended

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*