It's easy to get confused by the many types of pepper available in the grocery store: of course there's black, but also white, green, and even pink. But by understanding where each one comes from, you can always choose the proper pepper to achieve the flavor you seek. Black, green, and white peppercorns are actually fruits of the same plant (Piper nigrum) that are processed differently after harvesting. Other peppercorns, including pink and Szechuan, are not members of the pepper family, but they are used as such because of their pungent, peppery flavor.
Any pepper will lose its character a few months after being ground, so whole peppercorns are a pantry essential. Stored in a cool, dark place, they will retain their flavor for at least a year. Grind as needed using a pepper mill or a spice grinder. Keep in mind that the coarser the grain, the stronger the taste. For cracked pepper, a mortar and pestle works best, but you can also spread whole peppercorns in a skillet, then press firmly with another skillet; or place in a plastic bag, rest on a work surface, and lightly pound with a rolling pin.
1. Green Pepper in Brine
The unripe fruit of P. nigrum, which produces black peppercorns. The climbing vine grows along India's Malabar Coast, elsewhere in Asia, and in Brazil. Harvested while green and then bottled in brine, the peppercorns boast a tart, tangy flavor and have a softer texture than the dried type.
2. White Pepper
The dried seed of the black peppercorn, exposed after the skin and fruit have been soaked in water and removed. This husking process removes some of the pepper's heat and sharp pungency. Although white pepper produces a milder burn than black pepper, it is more aromatic. It also does not mar the appearance of white sauces or soups.
3. Green Pepper
The dried unripe berries of P. nigrum. They have a fruity flavor.
4. Pink Pepper
Unrelated to black peppercorns, pink peppercorns are the fruit of the Brazilian pepper tree (Schinus terebinthifolius), native to South America. They produce a numbing sensation, followed by heat. They're used primarily for their color.
5. Tellicherry Pepper
Grown in the northern part of India's Malabar Coast, these high-grade black peppercorns are larger because they're allowed to ripen longer. They are less pungent than regular black pepper.
6. Szechuan Pepper
These aromatic peppercorns come from the Chinese pepper plant (Zanthoxylum simulans), a small tree native to China that has no relation to P. nigrum. They are one of the ingredients in Chinese five-spice blend. The pepper produces a tingling, numbing sensation on the tongue.
Watch our Kitchen Conundrums expert Thomas Joseph delve into the many varieties of peppercorns: