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A Pepper Lover’s Guide to the World’s Best Peppercorns 

Every well-stocked pantry needs three kinds of pepper:

For true pepper lovers, there are picquant byways to explore:

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.

Note: Prices, accurate on 3/1/06, are subject to change.

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: www.penzeys.com.     

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.  

Lobel’s of New York, 1096 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10028.  Telephone: 877/783-4512.  Website:  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: www.herbies.com.au.  

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. bag: $7.79.  

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: www.kalustyans.com.  

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. 

Available from Marky’s Caviar, 687 NE 79th Street, Miami, FLA 33138.  Telephone: 305/758-9288.  Website: www.markyscaviar.com.

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: www.thespicehouse.com.  

7. Sichuan Peppercorns

Another 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. 

In 1968 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.”

Available 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

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 coleslaw. 

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: www.adrianascaravan.com.

Cubeb Pepper

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: www.goumanyat.com.  

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.

Available from Kalustyan’s (1 oz. $4.99); Adriana’s Caravan (1 oz. $6.00); and Chefshop.com ($9.99).