Black pepper has been used in cooking for centuries, but we still have a lot to learn about this ancient spice.
Published Apr. 3, 2019. Appears in America's Test Kitchen TV Season 21: Summer Dinner for Two
Ground black pepper is one of the most ubiquitous and well-loved spices in the world. It holds a place of honor next to salt on restaurant tables and at kitchen workstations and appears in at least 2,000 of our recipes, from cacio e pepe to steak au poivre. No matter the recipe, we love its balanced heat and earthy, toasty flavor.
All true peppercorns are harvested from Piper nigrum, a vining plant native to the Indian state of Kerala, which is located on the Malabar Coast. While peppercorns have been cultivated and used in Indian cooking since 2000 BC, we know that by AD 100 they were heavily traded throughout Europe and Asia. In the Roman cookbook Apicius—one of the oldest surviving cookbooks—black pepper is listed as an ingredient in 80 percent of the recipes. Today, black peppercorns are grown in tropical climates throughout the world, with Vietnam being the largest producer.
A peppercorn's color—green, white, or black—depends on when it was picked and how it was treated. Black peppercorns may be labeled with their place of origin, such as Lampong (Indonesia), Malabar (India), Vietnam, or Ethiopia. While these all come from the same plant, variations in terroir and climate may make the flavor unique.
Then there are Tellicherry black peppercorns, which are often lauded by many as the best in the world. Tellicherry peppercorns have two defining characteristics. First, they are grown in India. Second, Tellicherry peppercorns are 4 millimeters or larger in size. According to experts, larger peppercorns have less heat and more robust, aromatic flavors. Nearly any given peppercorn harvest in India will contain a mix of regular and Tellicherry peppercorns, with Tellicherry peppercorns representing 10 to 20 percent of the crop.
Once ripe and harvested, all the peppercorns are treated the same way. They are boiled briefly and then dried in the sun until they take on a black, shriveled appearance. Once dried, the peppercorns are taken to distribution facilities where they are shaken between a series of screens to sort them according to size. The largest peppercorns are graded as Tellicherry and sold at a premium on the global market.
What's all the fuss about Tellicherry peppercorns? Are they worth seeking out for their superior flavor, or will regular supermarket black peppercorns do? To find out, we gathered 10 whole black peppercorn products, four Tellicherry and six regular. Most of the products were supermarket top sellers, but we also included two mail-order Tellicherry products we've liked in previous tastings.
Our first challenge was to figure out how to taste the pep...
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