It's easy to be confused by the many types of pepper available in the grocery store: black, white, green, and even pink. But by understanding where these peppers come from, you can always choose the proper pepper to achieve the flavor you seek.
Any pepper will lose its character a few months after being ground, so whole peppercorns are a pantry essential. For a fine grind, use a spice grinder; for cracked pepper, a mortar and pestle works the best. Keep in mind that the coarser the grain, the stronger the taste. Because it has more flavor and texture, cracked pepper is used to coat steaks and fish before cooking.
White, green, and black peppers are all harvested from a flowering vine called piper nigrum, which winds around tree trunks or stakes to a height of about 10 feet.
To make black pepper, the peppercorns are picked when still green and are set out on straw mats under the hot tropical sun. The outer layer of the fruit then blackens as it dries.
Green pepper is harvested several weeks before black pepper. These immature berries are usually preserved in vinegar or brine and have a tart, slightly fruity flavor.
White pepper is picked a week or two later than black pepper, and then soaked in water to soften the outer husk, which comes off when the peppercorn dries. This husking process removes some of the pepper's heat and sharp pungency. Although more aromatic than the black pepper, the white pepper has a much milder taste.
Pink peppercorns, usually found in four-pepper blends seen in the supermarket, actually aren't pepper at all. Rather, they are the fruit of a South American shrub, schinus terebinchifolius, which was transplanted to the island of Reunion, east of Madagascar. Pink pepper, although very pretty, has the least flavor of these four types.
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