Is That Really Pepper?
First, all four types of peppercorns ARE true peppercorns from the black pepper vine, in Latin, Piper Nigrum. The difference is whether the berries are picked before or after they ripen, and in how the peppercorns are processed after being harvested. The spicy hot flavor from peppercorns is caused by a chemical called piperine, which is different than the chemical capsaicin, the hot stuff found in foods like chili peppers.
Black peppercorns are picked green, BEFORE the berry ripens, and are then dried. The berry shrivels up and turns black, and results in the peppercorn we most commonly think of as pepper. Actually biting into a whole black peppercorn will release both a sense of spicy hotness in your mouth along with the characteristic “peppery” flavor. My mouth was burning after chewing on a whole black peppercorn.
White peppercorns are fully ripened before they are picked, and the outer skin of the berry is removed, leaving just the seed. White peppercorns are good for use in food where black pepper would hurt the aesthetics of the food. After I realized this point, I converted one of my grinders to a white pepper only grinder, so now I don’t need my separate bottle of pre-ground white pepper! By the way, biting into a white peppercorn will also cause your mouth to burn, but without quite the robust pepper flavor of the black peppercorns.
Green peppercorns start off identical to black peppercorns, in that they are picked before they ripen. But rather than being dried, they are preserved with one of several different chemical processes, such as freeze-drying, so they stay smooth and retain their color. What’s interesting about green peppercorns is that they are not hard and crunchy like the other three types of peppercorns. Rather, they are somewhat soft and chewable, and have a mild flavor.
Red peppercorns, like white peppercorns, are picked after they have ripened and turned red on the vine. Instead of having their outer skin removed, the peppercorns are preserved in a fashion similar to green peppercorns, preserving the berry’s color and somewhat smooth skin. Red peppercorns should not be confused from pink peppercorns, which are apparently from an unrelated genus of vine. The red peppercorns in my jar tasted just like white peppercorns.
Happy Grinding and Gesundheit!