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Peppercorns: Beyond Basic Black

Cracked or whole peppercorns are an enticing adventure into a new level of tastes

Black peppercorns are a familiar sight in all grocery stores. But a venture into a gourmet shop or clicking onto a specialty on-line retailer will reveal a wondrous array of other spices in the peppercorn family. They come from around the world and create a whole new taste sensation - at a very reasonable price compared to many other spices.

Some professional chefs refer to peppercorns as the "king of spices," although there may be some debate when comparing saffron or vanilla, two of the most expensive. Pepper, in general, is a pantry staple, typically along with salt. These two very basic spices create the foundation for foods - the perfect yin and yang in some cases.

In general, there are three harvesting points for the readily available green peppercorns. Those with the greenish cast are young and more tender. White varieties will be less aromatic but are packed with a higher heat level. White peppercorns are ripened and then soaked in water. They're generally used in white sauces to preserve color integrity. Black peppercorns are harvested before ripening and then sun-dried. They are the ground varieties you see in tins and plastic containers in the spice aisle.

Not all peppercorns pack heat. Some are sweet, such as those from Malaysia, and others are mild enough to use in desserts (Sarawak black from Indonesia). Other aromatics include India's Tellicherry black. Hot and spicy peppers also are readily found, including Ecuadorian black and Lampong black.

To truly enjoy the rich perfumy aroma of any peppercorns, it's best to purchase them whole. They'll keep in a cool dark place for about two years. For best results, grind only what is needed and add late in the cooking process. Don't be surprised by a bitter taste in some; this can be advantageous in some foods.

When purchasing exotics at a local retailer, choose a reputable vendor - with a steady turnover. Inspect the bins if possible and be sure that the spices appear fresh and protected from outside flavoring influences. When purchasing an unfamiliar type, ask for a few to be crushed (if possible) and assess the aroma. You'll be amazed by the differences in peppercorn perfumery, which is an important part of the entire dining experience.

For grinding purposes, purchase a small, inexpensive mill and use it only for spices. Just as easily, however, peppercorns can be crushed with a heavy knife handle. For table service, it's often fun to have hand-grinding mills available with different peppercorn varieties.

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