Pepper is a condiment that has been salt's partner on Western tables for hundreds of years. It adds a flavour of its own to dishes, as well as enhancing the taste of other ingredients. A spice indigenous to southern India, it stimulates the appetite and gives food a gentle warmth. Black pepper comes from a climbing vine, the fruits of which - small round berries - ripen from green to red and finally to brown. Black peppercorns are actually berries that are picked when they're just turning red. They are then dried whole before being sold. Peppercorns can be green, white or black, depending on when they are harvested. Pink ‘peppercorns’, however, are not true pepper.
Store black pepper in the same way as other spices. Whole peppercorns keep for longer than ground pepper. Remember: ready-ground and cracked pepper will eventually go stale, just like other ground spices.
Peppercorns can be used whole, crushed or ground to add heat and flavour to cooking. Use them whole in stews and soups or as part of a bouquet garni. You will often find whole peppercorns spicing up salamis or sausages.
Freshly ground peppercorns have much more flavour than ready-ground pepper, so buy fresh whole peppercorns and invest in a pepper grinder. Try grinding fresh black pepper over a bowl of strawberries and see how it enhances the flavour of the fruit, releasing a very subtle pepper flavour.
Lightly crushed or cracked peppercorns can be used to spice up creamy sauces or to coat fillet steaks or chicken breasts. The light crushing releases the fragrant spiciness; using ground pepper in this way would just release too much heat.
Black pepper's flavour diminishes during cooking, so it's best to season dishes towards the end of cooking or at the table.
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