A black peppercorn is the dried unripened (green) fruit of the flowering vine Piper nigrum. The berries turn black and get their wrinkled appearance during the drying process. Their subtle heat comes from the chemical compound piperine (versus the much more potent capsaicin of chile peppers). Leading peppercorn growers include Vietnam, Indonesia, Brazil, Malaysia, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and China. There are many varieties of black pepper—a few of our favorites are listed below. Use them in dishes that really celebrate the power of the peppercorn, like Tony Rosenfeld's Steak au Poivre.
Sarawak (Malaysia) A seductive fruit-floral fragrance with a mellow heat and well-rounded flavor.
Lampong (Indonesia) An earthy, smoky aroma with an austere fruitiness and medium heat.
Malabar (India) A woodsy potpourri with a concentrated pepper flavor and heat. The more familiar Tellicherry is the largest of the Malabar peppercorns. It has a very earthy aroma with an intense flavor and underlying sweetness.
Talamanca (Ecuador) A lesser-known variety of peppercorn with a soft floral note to start and a spike of heat at the finish.
All varieties except for Talamanca are available online at Kalustyans.com. Talamanca pepper is available at Talamancapepper.com.
Grind it yourself
Like most spices, black pepper tastes best when freshly ground, so a good peppermill is a must in any kitchen worth its salt (and pepper). Our favorite mill for both test kitchen and home use is the Unicorn Magnum, shown here (available online at Cheftools.com).
A quality peppermill allows you to control the size of the grind from fine to coarse. For cracked and very coarsely ground pepper, it’s good to have a mortar and pestle on hand. And for grinding large quantities, an electric spice grinder or coffee mill is a real time saver.