Pepper is the ever-present seasoning for savory foods, providing a pungent punch of flavor to everything it touches. Black, white, and green peppercorns are the dried berries of the Piper nigrum plant. (“Pink peppercorns” are in a class of their own; see below). Each peppercorn has its own flavor characteristics and thus its own special uses in the kitchen. Try to buy peppercorns from a source with good turnover, store them away from heat and light (like any spice), and use them within a year. If you can’t find a local supplier, Penzeys sells 4-, 8-, and 16-ounce bags of good quality peppercorns in several varieties.
Black peppercorns come in many varieties with varying degrees of heat and flavor complexity. The largest black peppercorn is the Tellicherry, considered to be the best because it’s left on the vine longer for more developed flavor. Other black peppercorns are Sarawak, Malabar, and Vietnamese, but unless you’re buying from a specialty spice store, the packaging usually doesn’t specify the origin.
White peppercorns are from the same berries as black pepper, but they’re vine-ripened longer, and the black shell is stripped before drying. Their flavor is sharp, floral, almost winy, and hotter than black pepper. High heat coaxes out the flavor of white pepper, making it a good choice for grilled meats. Some cooks prefer white pepper in pale foods, such as white sauce or mashed potatoes, because it blends in.
Green peppercorns are young berries that are mildly tart and full of heat but lacking in complexity. Pair green peppercorns with lighter foods, such as vegetables, chicken, and fish. You’ll also find green peppercorns packed in jars of brine; use these whole or chopped in sauces, salad dressings, potato salads, pastas, and spreads.
Pink peppercorns aren’t actually peppercorns; they’re the berries of an unrelated tree. Mildly sweet and aromatic, they don’t contribute a lot of flavor. They’re often added to peppercorn blends for color. Pink peppercorns should only be used in pepper mills as part of a blend because their soft interiors could clog the mill’s grinding mechanism if ground solo.