Saturday, July 17, 2010

Flavor Profile: Black Pepper

Black pepper (piper nigrum) is a flowering vine cultivated for its fruit, which is usually dried and used as a spice and seasoning. Dried ground pepper has been used since antiquity. It is one of the most common spices added to food, and like salt, is integral to enhancing flavor. My charming 1964 cookbook that I inherited from my mother-in-law, called simply "The Spice Cookbook", says that "during all ages people have found its aroma to be provocative, irresistible".

Pepper has been called the "master spice". The world spice trade is, after all, a history of pepper. Native to India, it has been making its way westward for well over 4000 years. Until well after the Middle Ages, virtually all of the black pepper found in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa travelled there from India, but by the 16th Century, due to Portuguese influence, pepper was also being grown in Java, Sumatra, Madagascar, Malaysia and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Spices really did change the course of world history. Because they were so precious, Portuguese efforts to find a sea route to India during the age of discovery consequently led to their colonization of that country, as well as the European discovery and colonization of the Americas. Eventually we Americans could not consume as much pepper as was being imported and much of it went onward to Europe.

As with most spices, they were initially used by the wealthy due to their exorbinant cost, but as trade increased and prices were driven downward, they became more and more readily available to the masses.

Varieties are as endless as with salt. There is white pepper, which is sometimes used in dishes like light-colored sauces or mashed potatoes where ground black pepper specks would stand out (Again, aaccording to my Spice Cookbook, Europeans use a lot more white pepper than we do. We use more black). Green peppercorns are unripe pepper berries, and are treated in a way that retains their green color, usually by freeze drying. Pickled peppercorns are preserved in brine or vinegar.  Red, pink or orange peppercorns come from plants of a different family such as the Peruvian or Brazilian pepper tree.

Pepper gets its spicy heat from a compound found in both the outer fruit and the seed. The outer fruit layer, left on black pepper, also contains important odor-contributing compounds which give off citrusy, woody, floral notes, and which are largely missing from white pepper, which has been stripped of its fruit layer. Pepper loses flavor and aroma through evaporation, so airtight storage helps preserve it's spice. It's also wise to keep it away from light. Avoid the pre-ground variety and invest in good quality whole peppercorns from a reputable spice company, and grind them as you need them for maximum flavor.

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