Freshly ground black pepper is the culinary equivalent of the little black dress: always respectable, exceedingly useful, and as predictable as mill-wielding waiter at a white-cloth restaurant. Every roast or chop gets its rub; every plate of pasta is duly sprinkled. But peppercorns come in a rainbow of colors, each with a different personality, and even basic black offers more exotic variants.
This array of pepper choices can inspire new ways of seasoning. Add a fresh grind to foods traditionally finished with salt – roasted nuts, fries, crackers or popcorn. Quick bread favorites like biscuits and popovers gain sophistication with the addition of some spicy bite. A bit of fiery buckshot has a place at the dessert table too, offering its kick to a deeply spicy gingerbread, warm fruit compote, surprising and addictive lemon cookies, or in the classic Italian combination, to a dish of strawberries anointed with aged balsamic vinegar. Cooks who experiment with other options may discover a whole new wardrobe.
Black peppercorns are the dried, ripe berries of the Piper nigrum plant that most people are familiar with. Varieties are known by their place of origin: the unmarked bottles in the grocery store are generally the classic, bold Tellicherry, but adventurous cooks can also find Sarawak, Singapore or Malabar. These vary in complexity and heat level. Combining several in a grinder will provide a full spectrum of flavors, while using just one will highlight its particular personality. Some specialty merchants have started to offer peppercorns that have been smoked over hickory chips or in bourbon barrels, offering the possibility building layered flavors with a single ingredient.
White peppercorns are stripped of their dark skins and, with them, the characteristic taste of black pepper, revealing a nose-twisting musky aroma, as well as a powerful heat that fills the mouth with a slow-building burn. The French use tiny pinches of finely powdered kernels to give a hint of warmth to cream sauces like béchamel without marring their perfect whiteness, while other cuisines feature the spice front and center. Jamaican and Cajun spice blends both rely heavily on its characteristic intensity, combining it with cumin, cayenne and other spices to make aromatic and tongue-tingling blends. The most surprising use might be with nutmeg and allspice in a traditional English cake mixture.
Green peppercorns are the unripe berry, preserved by drying or brining. The dried version lacks much of the power and depth that ripening brings to its darker sibling, but does offer a clean, bright flavor in a softer shell that can be used whole. Preserved in brine, or rehydrated in water, wine or vermouth, these caper look-alikes can be used in many of the same ways as their doppelgangers: as the basis for sauces for poultry or rich-fleshed fish, such as mackerel, or in pork terrines or cheese spreads. Just a few atop a deviled egg add zing.
Pink peppercorns are not a true member of the pepper family, but their similar size and shape and their appealingly rosy hue make them the traditional partner of real peppercorns in glass-sided mills. Mild and just a bit sweet, this seasoning makes a marvelous infusion into vodka, producing a genteel cousin to the popular but brash chili pepper vodka. This blushing aperitif manages to be both demure and piquant, like the society doyenne who pairs her pearls with a leopard-skin cape. Some pastry chefs feature pinks in unusual desserts, such as meringues or compotes.
In the early days of the spice trade, Indonesian long pepper (sometimes called Javanese or Indian long pepper) was considered to be the same as true black pepper. In fact, these long pods come from the Piper longum plant, a close relative to Piper nigrum. Once found almost exclusively in Indian grocers, these fragrant treasures are now available atspecialty grocers and spice dealers. Resembling tight brown pinecones up to two inches long, these seed capsules need to be ground fresh. An ordinary table mill might not be up to the task, but an electric coffee grinder should yield a fine powder with a strong bite and a nearly floral scent. Try these in a pork rub or a lamb stew.