Thursday, February 19, 2009

Black Pepper

This post is for Keith, whose inquiring mind wants to know about the various forms of black pepper (Piper nigrum). You can see the four forms in this bowl of mixed pepper that we put in our tabletop pepper grinders: black, white, green, and pink.

The black pepper vine, native to south India, produces very thinly fleshed, tiny fruits that are deep red when ripe. The pepper that we know as black pepper comes from the green unripe fruits, which are cooked for a short time in hot water. As the fruits dry, enzymatic action browns the fruit and it shrivels around the seed, producing the familiar black peppercorn.

If the fruit is soaked in water for a longer period, the flesh comes away and after further processing to remove all the flesh, only the seed is left. Some manufacturers also use mechanical processes to strip the flesh from the seeds. The seed is greyish in color and is known as a white peppercorn.

Green peppercorns are dried unripe fruits. To preserve their color, they are freeze-dried or treated with sulfur dioxide. Pink/red peppercorns are the ripe fruit treated in the same manner. Green and pink/red peppercorns are also pickled.

There are also unrelated plants from South America that produce bright red berries that are similarly spicy and are sometimes called pink pepper.

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