I like pepper. And I don’t mean Sandy Denton of Salt n Pepa. But I really don’t know anything about where it comes from, what the different kinds are, etc. At least I didn’t until 10 minutes ago when I started a procrastination-induced research project on the topic. Here are my findings.
Pepper is a little round berry from the pepper plant (Piper nigrum), which is a flowering vine with big, deeply veined leaves. It can grow in a pot or in the ground provided winter temperatures stay above freezing. To make those darling little berries into peppercorns, you start by briefly cooking green unripened berries in hot water to break down the cell walls, which will accelerate the drying process. As it dries, the fruit part of the berry shrivels around the seed giving it the peppercorn its dark, wrinkly appearance. To make white pepper, you let the berry soak in water for a week and the flesh of the berry decomposes, leaving only the white seed. Green peppercorns are similar to black peppercorns, except the unripe berries are made to stay green by chemicals or freeze drying.
The different colors of peppercorns have different flavors/aromas due to their different composition. The “heat” of pepper comes from a chemical called piperine which is found in both the seed and outer fruit, so both white and black peppercorns are hot. The heat factor of piperine is about 1% of capsaicin, the chemical that gives chili peppers their heat. The outer part of the berry contains a variety of terpene compounds that mostly contribute to the aroma of pepper. Thus, black pepper, which retains the outer dried berry flesh, has a more aromatic quality than white pepper. Green peppercorns taste more like black peppercorns, but with a supposedly “fresher” or “fruitier” flavor. I’ve never had one, so I’ll have to trust the folks at www.bulkpeppercorns.com.
These flavor and aroma compounds are very sensitive to light and air, so once a peppercorn is ground, it will soon lose much of its heat and aroma. This is why pepper mills are often used at the time of cooking or consumption to get the most flavor out of the peppercorns.
Incidentally, bell peppers and chili peppers are not really related to “pepper” other than that they are all plants. Bell peppers were misleadingly called peppers by Columbus when he found them in the New World, because at that time pepper was a very expensive and highly valued spice.
Props to wikipedia, toptropicals.com, and bulkpeppercorns.com for their fun fact resourcefulness.