The Power of Pepper: A closer look at salt’s best friend

Peppercorns are the most widely traded spice in the world. After all, as the tale goes, Christopher Columbus sailed west looking not for gold but for a shorter route to India to gather the prized spice. Today, most of us know pepper as salt’s longtime companion. And sure, we’ve dabbled with the green variety in gumbos and Jungle Curry or used szechwans to spice up pad kee mao, a ground meat and rice noodle dish flavored with Thai basil. But these applications only touch the surface of what’s possible with the pungent little berries, one of the most versatile – and intriguing – ingredients in any kitchen.

Take black peppercorns, for instance. Left whole, these dried, dark fruits add full-bodied spice to chicken-based soups and, when cracked, form a crisp, pungent blanket for steak au poivre. But bring black peppercorns out of their comfort zone into something, say, a bit sweeter, and their flavor shines in an entirely new light.

When Amy Zupanci and 222 Artisan Bakery’s Matt Herren went looking to create a signature cookie for Zupanci’s general store/café Township Grocer in Edwardsville, they took inspiration from a dish Zupanci was serving at her neighboring fine-dining restaurant, Fond: a Parmesan ravioli with the zest and juice of fresh lemons, coarsely ground black peppercorns and a touch of spearmint. Penzeys’ lemon extract and ground black peppercorns are mixed to create a cookie that’s sweet, sour, just a touch spicy and delightfully unexpected. “It’s not the conventional lemon pepper spice blend that’s in conventional grocery stores,” Zupanci said. “Individually, black pepper and lemon are really great complements. Lemon is refreshing and black pepper is really aggressive; I like to find the yin and yang.”

Zupanci has toyed with other ways of balancing the robust flavor of black peppercorns, even using them in cocktails. She combines pepper-infused simple syrup with local honey syrup, Drambuie scotch liqueur and lemon, shakes it, finishes it with a touch of lemon and a drizzle of honey, and serves it on the rocks. Sweet, peppery perfection.

When working with fish, however, Zupanci prefers the mellower flavor of Muntok white peppercorns. “Black pepper on a white, really nice, light fish is really aggressive and you’re going to taste it,” she explained. “We want you to taste the fish and think that it’s a really nice fish, not that there’s pepper on it.”

At Overlook Farm in Clarksville, executive chef Tim Grandinetti chooses white peppercorns less for their variance in flavor from the black variety than for their difference in hue, using the beige berries to keep a pure color in light-colored dishes. He blends them with a rich roux for a silky béchamel and incorporates them into a steamy pot of ground cornmeal and stock for a smooth, creamy polenta. Franco chef Matthew Abeshouse also reaches for white peppercorns when preparing his house-made chicken sausage – a combination that works both for the eye and the palate. “They have a softer flavor that balances out the sausage and they keep the little black specks out,” he noted.

Pink peppercorns, however, deliver just the opposite: bright, bold flavor and eye-popping color. Abeshouse substitutes the soft peppercorns for the fruit in a not-so-classic gastrique he pairs with duck confit. He mixes the layers of fat and jus that form on the duck with red wine vinegar, sugar and pink peppercorns, and heats the mixture until it becomes a bold sauce that cuts the fattiness of the dish with a perfect zing. Over at Sunset 44 Bistro, new executive chef Tony Nguyen will be using pink peppercorns as a burst of color – and flavor – in his oyster appetizer. He lays oysters on a bed of sea and kosher salts, black and pink peppercorns, thyme and fresh rosemary. “They’re beautiful,” he said of the pink pepper. “They have a mild citrus taste to them, like a citrusy sweetness that also works really well in fruit sauces and desserts.”

Nguyen turns to the mild, fruity flavor of green peppercorns to add yet more peppery flavor to steak au poivre. For the sauce he serves with the dish, he sautés finely minced shallots and grated garlic in some olive oil, flambés it with some brandy and adds cracked green peppercorns, followed by demi-glace. “The flavor leaves a little fiery note right at the bottom of your throat; it’s a nice heat but it’s not overwhelming,” he explained. “The aroma is really bright and lively.”

For Bryan Carr, chef and partner at Atlas, Pomme Restaurant and Pomme Café and Wine Bar, zesty green peppercorns balance the deep, smooth flavors in his béarnaise and pâtés. “They are both rich and have a lot of fat; you have to have some relief from that otherwise the first bite coats your mouth and, by the third, you’ve had enough,” he noted. Carr softens the peppercorns by soaking them in brandy, leaving them whole in the béarnaise and using a combination of whole and cracked in the pâté. While chefs sometimes turn to wine or mustard to cut the fat in rich sauces, he counts on the clean, sharp flavors of green peppercorns to get the job done.

No matter what you’re looking for – fruity or fiery, smooth or strong – peppercorns can add that little extra punch to nearly any dish. Try playing with their natural flavors for even more versatility, toasting whole peppercorns in a dry skillet for a nutty boost or soaking them in brine or liquor to soften and infuse them with your favorite flavors. That’s the thing about pepper: Just when you thought you knew all this kitchen workhorse had to offer, it surprises you – and oh, is that surprise delicious.