Our global peppercorn shopping list will take you from
India and Malaysia to Africa and Australia—and to our best sources for
premium peppercorns. For advice on choosing a pepper mill, see
Best Pepper Mills: There's One for Every Taste.
1. Best Whole Black Peppercorns
A quartet of peppercorns from
Penzeys Spices rank high for freshness and flavor. Top grade
Tellicherry Indian Black Peppercorns are left to ripen longer on the vine,
making them larger, sweeter and more complex in flavor than ordinary
peppercorns. The rich, fruity aroma and fiery heat of Penzeys’
Tellicherry peppercorns make them an ideal choice for Floyd Cardoz’s
Black Pepper Shrimp, Watermelon and Lime Salad.
1 lb. bag: $10.30
Penzeys also sells the even more exclusive Special
Extra Bold Indian Black Peppercorns which take the ripening process a step
further. Mature peppercorns are left on the vine until they begin to turn
pink, resulting in a very complex, unusually robust flavor with a
surprisingly mellow burn. We buy these peppercorns by the pound and use
them to work magic in dishes like
Singapore Black Pepper Crab. (In industry terms, “special” means best
flavor and “extra bold” refers to extra-large size; only 10 pounds out of
each ton make this distinctive grade.) 1 lb. bag: $13.50.
For a less costly, all purpose pepper, consider
Malabar Indian Black Peppercorns which have a light, fragrant aroma and a
rush of fiery heat that lingers on the palate. Malabar is considered the
finest mass market pepper. 1 lb. bag: $9.30. Malaysian-grown Sarawak
Black Peppercorns are intriguing: the flavor is toasty at first, with
fresh green notes followed by a mild heat that peaks quickly and fades.
A relatively delicate pepper, it is just right for sprinkling on fruit
and for sweet desserts such as chocolate and black pepper biscotti. 1
lb. bag: $12.40.
Penzeys Spices, P. O. Box 924, Brookfield, Wisconsin
53008-094. Telephone: 800/741-7787. Fax: 262/785-7678. Website:
2. Best Small Estate Black Peppercorns
Parameswaran’s Special Wynad Black Pepper is grown on
a small organic family estate on the Wynad plateau in Kerala. In a lush
valley said to be populated by elephants and the occasional tiger, green
pepper berries are left on the vine until they are flushed with red, then
plucked by hand and laid on mats to dry in the sun. These peppercorns are
extraordinary: very large and black, very rich and fruity, very pungent,
with a fiery heat that lingers on the palate. The pepper actually seems
to taste of the sun; vacuum-sealed packaging helps preserve freshness.
Expensive but well worth it, especially if you grind them at the table or
use them to finish a dish just before serving.
New York, 1096 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10028. Telephone:
www.lobels.com. 200-gram bag: $16.95.
3. Best Ground Black Pepper
Normally we don’t recommend purchasing ground pepper,
but the Ground Black Pepper Pericarp from Herbie’s Spices in Australia is
the exception to the rule. This fragrant pepper “dust” is intensely
flavorful but only mildly hot. Made from the pericarp or outer shell of
the peppercorn, which contains the volatile oils that give pepper its
irresistible aroma, it is ideal for adding light peppery taste to grilled
salmon or tuna. Owner Ian Hemphill, who found this product in Sarawak,
uses it to make pepper steak. 40 gram vacuum-sealed packet: AUS $2.80.
Herbie’s whole peppercorns include South Indian Super
Grade Extra Black Peppercorns that have been blanched to accelerate the
oxidation process and kiln-dried. The flavor is bold with a
straightforward medium heat. 35-gram packet: AUS $6.95. Smallish
Australian Grown Black Peppercorns from tropical North Queensland have a
vibrant flavor and a wicked heat that sneaks up on the unsuspecting
palate. Small packet: AUS $4.50.
Herbie’s Spices, 745 Darling Street, Rozelle NSW
2039, Australia. Telephone: 02-9555-6035. Fax: 02-9555-6037. Website:
4. Best White Peppercorns
Sarawak White Peppercorns from Malaysian Borneo are
the creme de la creme of white pepper. Their high quality has much
to do with methods of harvesting and production: Green pepperberries are
left on the vine until they begin to turn yellow or red, then are packed
into burlap sacks and placed in a cool, running stream for two weeks until
the outer shell looses from the hard inner core. The result is a very
clean, pale peppercorn which has a distinctively rich, winey flavor and a
fierce afterburn. We mixed them with Tellicherry Peppercorns for
Elizabeth David’s Steak Au Poivre with great success. Penzeys, 8 oz.
Muntok White Peppercorns from Indonesia are soaked in
barrels of cool water to loosen the outer shell. Although not as fine as
white pepper from Sarawak, Muntok pepper has the same lightly fermented
taste and hot bite. We recommend using Muntok peppercorns in blends: try
mignonette, a combination of cracked black and white peppercorns
popular in France, or the ubiquitous mix of black, white and green
peppercorns for grinding. Both Penzeys (8 oz. bag: $6.19) and Herbie’s
(40-gram packet: AUS $4.50) Muntok peppercorns are very hot.
We were recently intrigued by Penja Pepper ( “Pearl
of Cameroon”). These large, light tan peppercorns are said to be grown in
the volcanic soil of the Penja valley in Africa. Not as hot as most white
peppercorns, their flavor is quite distinctive; as the package says,
“delicate, velvety, warm ... woody and musky.” We found them at
Kalustyan’s in New York. 4-oz.bag: $7.99.
Kalustyan’s, 123 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY
10016. Telephone: 212/685-3451. Fax: 212/683-8458. Website:
5. Best Green Peppercorns
Herbie’s late-picked Green Peppercorns for Mills have
a fresh, aromatic flavor followed by a burst of searing heat that doesn’t
fade; they are firm enough to grind in a peppermill. 20-gram packet: AUS
$4.90. The Australian spice merchant also has freeze-dried Super Grade
Green Peppercorns, which can be crumbled over food, or reconstituted in
water to use whole in cooking. Small packet: AUS $6.90.
Penzeys’dehydrated Green Peppercorns have a light
fresh flavor and a soft burn, and can also be used in a mill. We mixed
them with Sarawak White Peppercorns and Whole Special Extra Bold Indian
Black Peppercorns in our recipe for
Mesquite Grilled Pork Tenderloin with Three Peppercorns and Orange Flavor.
3 oz. jar: $16.49.
We can’t leave the subject of green peppercorns
without touching upon Moulin Poivre Vert. The Moulin family
preserves Madagascar-grown green peppercorns in a saltwater brine, then
packs them in a distinctive acid-green, black and white can which bears
the slogan, “The best quality at the tightest price.” A favorite
ingredient of nouvelle cuisine chefs, these resinous-tasting, mildly spicy
peppercorns starred in dishes such as steak au poivre vert
during the 1970s. Sprinkle a few over smoked salmon for an interesting
twist on the usual condiments. 6.17-oz tin: $3.22.
from Marky’s Caviar, 687 NE 79th Street, Miami, FLA 33138.
Telephone: 305/758-9288. Website:
6. Pink Peppercorns (Not the Real Thing)
True pink peppercorns are the fully ripened fruit of
the piper nigrum vine, nearly impossible to find outside regions
where pepper is grown. Occasionally sold fresh, they are usually pickled
in brine; dried pink peppercorns have such papery husks that they are hard
to use in cooking.
What we know as “pink peppercorns” are actually the
fruit of the Schinus terebinthifolius tree native to Peru, where
Andean Indians have long used them to flavor fermented drinks. Today,
most “pink peppercorns,” also known as baies roses, are grown
commercially on the French island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean. Unlike
true peppercorns, the fruit of the Schinus tree tends to be sweet
with a resinous finish. They are often used decoratively in peppercorn
mixtures, but can be used on their own to lend a touch of sweet spiciness
to delicate cream sauces or fresh seafood.
Pink peppercorns from Chicago’s Spice House are
sweet at first, followed by a mildly camphorous taste and a cooling effect
on the tongue. One-half cup jar: $4.99. Herbie’s Pink Peppercorns are
sweet with “pine-like” undertones and just a touch of heat. Small
packet: AUS $6.00.
The Spice House, 1512 North Wells Street, Chicago, IL
60610. Telephone: 312/274-0378. Fax: 312/274-0143. Website:
7. Sichuan Peppercorns
misnomer: Sichuan peppercorns are the burr-like, mildly pungent fruit
of the prickly ash shrub. An essential ingredient in Chinese five-spice
powder and of Sichuan cuisine, they are known for their light lemony
taste and fizzy, numbing effect on the palate.
Sichuan peppercorns were banned from import by the USDA because of a
suspected citrus canker, but the spice could often be found in Chinese
markets. The official ban was lifted in 2005, when the department
approved a heat treatment—exposure at 140 degrees for 20 minutes—to
destroy the canker. According to a July 27, 2005 New York Times
article by Florence Fabricant, “Sichuan’s Signature Heat is Legal
Again,” heat-treated berries have “about 10 percent less heat and
tingling sensation in the mouth than untreated ones. So cooks going for
the signature fire of Sichuan dishes would be advised to increase the
quantity of peppercorns.”
from Chefshop.com. Telephone: 877/337-2491. Website:
www.chefshop.com (2 oz. $2.99) Also from
Adriana’s Caravan (1 oz. $3.00); Penzeys (1 oz. $2.49).
8. And a Trio of Peppery Exotics...
Here are three exotic, sometimes hard-to-find
peppercorns. Two are relatives of the piper nigrum; the
other is actually a member of the ginger or Zingiberaceae family.
Long pepper, the fruit of the piper longum
vine, was the most prized pepper in the ancient world. It fell from
favor in the 16th century and is now used occasionally in Indian and
Indonesian recipes, particularly in pickles, preserves and chutneys.
The long, dark brown peppercorn resembles a miniature pine catkin, or
immature cone. Tom Hill, Seattle spice merchant and author of The
Contemporary Encyclopedia of Herbs and Spices, suggests grinding long
pepper to a powder and tossing it with fresh fruit or a vinegar
Herbie’s sells large Indonesian Long Pepper that
has a distinctly floral aroma and flavor that gives way to a slow,
tongue-numbing burn. 30 gram packet: AUS $4.80. Adriana’s Caravan also sells long pepper; corns are
smaller, with a musky aroma, a tingling effect on the tongue and a
pronounced metallic aftertaste. 1-oz.: $7.00.
Adriana’s Caravan. Telephone: 800/316-0820. Website:
Cubeb, or “tailed,” pepper, is so called because it
looks like a dried brown peppercorn with a short stem attached. The
fruit of the piper cubeba vine, it has a mild woody flavor with a
resinous finish; it sometimes lacks pungency. Although widely used in
medieval cookery, today cubebs are most often found in North African
spice mixtures such as the Moroccan ras al hanout.
We are particularly partial to a French blend,
MelangeAl-Andalousi, which comes from the lovely spice shop Goumanyat et
Son Royaume in Paris. Based on a medieval Moorish recipe, it combines
cracked cubeb, long, black and white peppercorns with juniper, coriander
and nigella seeds. We’ve used it with great success as a zesty rub for
pork tenderloin. 40-gram jar: 3,19 Euros.
Whole cubebs may be purchased from Herbie’s
(small packet: AUS $4.50) or Adriana’s Caravan (1-oz. packet: $3.00; or
Chefshop.com (45 grams, $8.99).
Goumanyat et Son Royaume, 33 Rue Dupuis, Paris
75003. Telephone: 33-1-44-78-96-74. Fax: 33-1-44-78-96-75. Website:
Grains of Paradise
And finally there are the near-mystical Grains of
Paradise. Also known as Melegueta or Guinea pepper, this is not pepper
at all, but a member of the ginger family. The “grains” are actually
seeds of the aframomum melegueta shrub, native to the West coast
of Africa. Very, very hot with slight floral overtones and a mildly
resinous aftertaste, in medieval days they were a substitute for more
expensive true pepper. Today grains of paradise are newly chic and
can be hard
to come by, though they have long been used to enliven aquavit and other
alcoholic potions. New York Times food critic Amanda Hesser
tasted “jasmine, hazelnut, butter and citrus,” and used them in a recipe
for black cod with lemon and rosemary.
from Kalustyan’s (1 oz. $4.99); Adriana’s Caravan (1 oz. $6.00); and