Unique features of pepper
Pepper spice comes from the black pepper or Piper nigrum plant. This plant produces drupes (grapelike berries or fruit) called peppercorns. These drupes are dried and ground to produce the spice we know as black pepper.
Each peppercorn contains a single seed, which is what is used in the production of white pepper. The plant originated from India, where it has been used in cooking for thousands of years – as early as 2,000 BCE.
Interestingly, pepper is the most commonly used spice worldwide, and is also the mostly widely traded. Ethiopia is the largest global pepper exporter, and produced over 374,000 tonnes in 2019!
The compound which gives pepper its distinct spicy flavour is called piperine. From a nutritional standpoint, piperine is notable for its ability to enhance the absorption of other nutrients – such as selenium, beta-carotene and Vitamin B12 – by the human body.
What is pepper used for in products
By far the most common use of pepper is as a seasoning to add heat, spice, sharpness, and depth of flavour to savoury foods. However, it also has antimicrobial and antioxidant properties that help to preserve food and increase its shelf life.
It also has a long history of medicinal use. In Ayurvedic and Buddhist medicine, pepper was used to treat a variety of maladies, from insomnia to sunburn.
Products that contain pepper
Pepper is used in a huge variety of savoury food products:
- Crackers and savoury biscuits and snacks
- Chips and crisps
- Often added to Feta cheese
- Dips, dressings, marinades, and sauces
- Microwaveable ready meals
- Powdered soups and stew mixes
- Often added to other condiments like BBQ and chicken spice
Some medicinal and beauty products and massage oils contain pepper oil or pepper spirit – which is extracted from crushed berries.
Types of pepper
The most commonly used forms of pepper are:
Black pepper comes from unripe drupes which are still green. These are collected and cooked briefly in hot water to clean them, before being dried – either via machine or by laying in the sun for several days.
As they dry, the skin shrinks into the familiar wrinkles we see on black peppercorns. These are then either packaged as-is, or finely ground to produce ground black pepper.
Unlike black pepper, only the seed within the drupe is used to make white pepper. The flesh of the fruit is removed in a process called retting, where the fruit are allowed to soak in water for about seven days so the flesh decomposes.
Green peppercorns are specially treated so they don’t turn black during the drying process. This can be done through freeze-drying, canning, or through treatment with sulphur dioxide. Unfortunately, green pepper decays quickly, so they aren’t suitable for international shipping.
Green peppercorns can also be pickled in brine or vinegar, and are popular in Thai cooking.
Unlike black, white, and green pepper, red peppercorns are made from drupes which have been allowed to ripen fully. Their colour is preserved the same way as with green pepper, and they are preserved in brine and vinegar.