Black pepper--what is it that makes it unique?

Joined Jun 16, 2007
I think most would agree with me that black pepper simply has no substitute. What makes black pepper so special?

I ask the question because I'd like to get better at seasoning things. The more I can understand how black pepper is so superb, heavenly, essential, addictive and all, the more I can understand spices in general. Is there just no way to compare it to other spices? I haven't found a way to compare, but I'd like to understand its magic.


Staff member
Joined Mar 29, 2002
Then you should start by understanding the difference between piperine, capsaicin and sinigrin, These are the hot pungent chemicals of black pepper, chile peppers and mustard/horseradish/wasabi respectively.

They can play together and alone and bring out flavors of what they're used to season.
Joined Aug 25, 2009
I wish I had as much insight as you Phatch....I had to research.....


What a terrific topic !!!! I read your post and tried to answer it but I simply cannot. I found an article, it is brief, but I thought you might enjoy it (we might all ?). I hope there are more posts on this as I do not know just how far back it really goes, and what pepper can do ....

Jacqueline Church:

Throughout history, cooks coveted them, merchants made fortunes on them. Peppercorns were valued as much as gold; and comprised part of the ransom for Rome.
A Pepper Primer for you dear readers, along with two recipes!

For thousands of years this spice held its value both to cooks and to traders. Debts, rent and dowries might be paid with pepper and family fortunes could be turned by a smart marriage to a pepper-wealthy bride. As the value of other currency fluctuated, peppercorns held their own.
Pepper in Past

It’s said that the words “Sprinkle with pepper and serve" are the last step in the first cookbook, at least the oldest surviving cookbook. It dates back to the 1st century Roman gastronome Apicius.
Pepper became part of the spice trade when traders discovered the Malabar Coast in Kerala, India. It quickly replaced the long peppers used in early days. Balinese Long peppers had fallen out of commercial favor, in part due to their finicky resistance to commercial farming techniques.
Malabar peppercorns became synonymous with “pepper.” About 10% of Malabar peppercorns are large enough to be graded as Telicherry.
During the early spice trade, these tiny imports were so valuable, dockside pubs had “no cuffs and no pockets” rules and dock workers would often find their pockets sewn shut to prevent stealing.
One might even say that Yale University was built on peppercorns. America’s first millionaire, Elias Haskett Derby used his peppercorn importing fortune to endow it.
Pepper today

Say "S&P" to any ten people and I'll bet all ten will know you mean salt and pepper, so common is this basic ingredient. We've begun to hear more about artisan salts, but did you know how many pepper varieties there are?

Today we are lucky to be enjoying a resurgence of peppercorn imports. Ubiquitous Telicherry pepper is now exported by Brazil. Other countries are entering the picture. Here are some to look for:

  • Kampot pepper from Cambodia;

  • Organic, floral black peppercorns from Ecuador;

  • Muntok from Indonesia;

  • Sarawak white pepper from Borneo;

  • Comet’s Tails Cubeb from Java – known for menthol qualities
Even Balinese Long Peppers are available again through a unique program to encourage farming and exporting of this treasured spice. Top chefs are singing the praises of this exotic spice and I’m excited to support small family farms with my own food obsession! See Big Tree Bali for these gems. Don’t forget to stock up on Divine Sonoran Oregano while you’re checking the pantry. It's another heritage, fair trade product supporting indigenous farmers. And it's superiour oregano to boot.

At the moment, Kampot Pepper from Cambodia reigns supreme in my kitchen. Here is my version of a classic condiment made with it. I invite my Cambodian experts to weigh in.
Cambodian Pepper Sauce – “Lover Sauce”

This version is an adaptation of an adaptation…originally attributed to a book called "Eating with Headhunters."

  • 1 TBSP Chile Paste

  • 2-3 TBSP Lime Juice (fresh only please!)

  • ½ tsp salt

  • ½ - 1 tsp pepper (Kampot pepper if you can get it!)

  • ½ tsp – 1 tsp sugar

  • 2 TBSP fish sauce

  • 12 Thai Basil or Mint leaves, julienned
Heat all ingredients but the fresh basil or mint in a small saucepan. Depending on the type of chili paste you have on hand, you may want to add more or less of other ingredients.

Try combining the basic recipe and then adjust to your taste. I wanted more pepper, lime and sugar. I like the combination of tart, sweet, and peppery spice. This is very good on simple grilled or poached fish or chicken.


Staff member
Joined Mar 29, 2002
Piperine makes peppercorns hot. But it doens't linger and build in the way capsaicin does from bite to bite. White pepper, having the hull removed has the piperine impact but not the over and undertones associated with black pepper that come mostly from the hull. These are often called fruity, flowery and full.

Capsaicin is just heat (and pain) No real flavor to it itself in my opinion. Flavors come more from what you're adding capsaicin with be it the chile itself or a hot sauce. My esperience wtih capsaicin is that it makes other flavors more acute even if you don't add enough to notice it's hotness. Probably from the way it ravages the taste buds and sensitizes them. I tend to use it as a light seasoning to support flavor as you would with salt. I do this because I have a salt restriction in my diet but not to make the food itself hot. Because of that sodium restriction, I use it along with black pepper, usually where I want more flavor in a dish but not more black pepperiness. Both will reduce your need to season with salt.

Sinigrin is quite different though it triggers many of the same sensations. It can have an almost overpowering rush of impact but it clears out quickly. To me it carries a sinus burn when strong but in dilute form like common mustards amplifies the tang and tones. However, it too seems to ravage the taste buds and senstitize them to flavors that follow much like capsaicin.

Of these, black pepper is the only one that really has a flavor itself. You'll experience capsaicin's heat and sinigrin's impace even if you can't taste (nose plugged) And white pepper is used to add impact but itself lacks the flavor of black pepper.

Yet they're all described with similar adjectives and physical sensations becaus e they all trigger pain receptors on the tongue
Joined Nov 6, 2004
Wow phatch, thanks for the explanation. I didn't know pepper was so interesting...I was wrong :)

petals...I'll definitely try your recipe. Thanks :)

Joined Jun 16, 2007
Thank you, people :^) I'll have to try that pepper sauce, for sure.

"My esperience wtih capsaicin is that it makes other flavors more acute even if you don't add enough to notice it's hotness." . . . this I have to play with.
Joined Aug 18, 2007
Thanks Phatch,

My Husband is addicted and over the years I too find I'm unable to finish a dish without it, but not to the same extent as OH.
If anyone were to ask me what it is about black pepper that finishes a dish for me, I'd be at a loss to explain. The heat seems like a btw. The scent and flavour is all.

I have to dissagree with you on white pepper tho. It really does have its place. Not just for heat - It gives "something" je ne sais que, to a lentil broth, stovies (Scots meat n potato dish) I wouln't be without it when mashing carrots with butter and a tad of mace. But black pepper rules and I loved your explaination.
Joined Jun 16, 2007
I thought of an interesting idea (at least I think it is)--a restaurant could serve some type of meat, or whatever, with 3, or however many, different kinds of pepper on separate small portions, so they can be compared side by side. Or grinders with different types of pepper could be on the table for the customer to use and compare. I'd go for that idea.
Joined Aug 25, 2009
That sounds like a good idea !

Dan ,

Please read the post again and see where that recipe came is not attributed to me.
I would hate to think you made it and the next thing you know you are calling me from the hospital asking me how to change the gauze on your tongue......


What a read......Terrific.
My family is really into hot flavors.....Pepper is one of those ingredients my mother puts in everything...."Well, this looks like it could use some pepper too" she tosses a handful in. In the meantime I take a mouthful of soup and find myself on kitchen floor doing the chicken dance !!!!! (danse au poulet)
Crazy about peppercorn steak though. Formidable, just sensational.
Joined Aug 18, 2007
I think you have the basis for potential there Yeti? Love the thread. I think it will go on n on
Joined Oct 16, 2008
If you want to really experience differences in peppercorns go to an Indian spice shop and smell the Black and White peppercorns vs a Vietnamese Spice shop. In the Indian shops they strip the hulls for the white in a watery acid solution that gives it a "clean" smell vs in a Vietnamese shop where they brine in a bath and naturally strip the hulls to make White Pepper. Very dirty undertones with a strong fragrance, that is how you can tell where your White pepper comes from. With Black, the higher the Pepperine the more "flavor" you may get out of it the more likely it is from the East(thailand, vietnam, Korea) vs India which is where almost all of the Peppercorns in the world come from.

Its quite interesting because in many of the imitation Vanilla's that you can buy on the market today when you see what looks like specs of the Vanilla bean its actually the hull from Black Peppercorns that has been steamed to remove any excess oils, dried and ground to imitate the vanilla.
Joined Apr 16, 2006
There's also green peppercorns, which I love, & pink peppercorns, not a true pepper (piper), but which I also love. In Southern California, pink pepper trees (both varieties) are all over the place; I get my pink peppercorns from Griffith Park.

I recently made a terrific non-dairy ice cream with coconut milk, mango puree & pink peppercorns. I let the crushed pink peppercorns steep in the simple syrup for half an hour or so; that didn't give me a strong enough flavor, so after I strained them out of the syrup, I soaked them in a tablespoon of warm 151 rum, which I also added to the base. THAT did the trick.

Black pepper/strawberry sorbet is also on the list....

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