Black Pepper: It’s All in the Grind

Several years ago I bought my dad a battery-operated pepper grinder for Christmas. More functional than extravagant, the unit was admittedly slick in its delivery, and my black pepper-fanatic father fell instantly under its spell, while I, for forty bucks and postage, was exalted into best gift-giver status for the season.

You can gauge the exact grind for the job, he would brag to my non-black pepper-fanatic mother, so the perfect flavor is imparted.

He was right. To be sure dad knows his black pepper, and the fact that the size of the grind affects flavor did not escape him, and his daughter has learned via experimentation and by default of time or product the nuances of varied pepper grinds. The finer the spice the greater the surface area and the more readily it imparts flavor to my dishes, while coarser grinds deliver hearty pops in flavor and texture.

Are your black pepper grinds meeting your needs? Most chefs know black peppercorns grow on the same vine as green ones, in little clusters like grapes. Green peppercorns are simply little underdeveloped peppercorns, harvested and preserved when they are young seeds, lending a softer, milder “green” flavor. Likewise, white peppercorns are black peppercorns incognito, soaked to remove the outer casing, imparting a more intense, fermented flavor and aroma.

Black peppercorns picked at prime are cleaned and dried over time, allowing their rich flavor profile to develop. Like other peppercorns, black peppercorns can be used culinarily in its whole form, or they can be halved (half-cracked), quartered (quarter-cracked), or ground from coarse to finely ground.

Different sized peppercorns impart different qualities on our food. Spice units are measured in the United States by what is called a US Mesh Size, a standardized unit of measure denoting the number of holes per square inch in a sieve. To pack more holes into one square inch, the holes must obviously be smaller. Therefore grind of the product must be finer for it to slip through. So a bigger number indicates a smaller particle, not a bigger one.

It all depends on what you are going for. Quarter-or even half-cracked black pepper — at six to ten mesh size — will dispatch that bold pop as required by the illustrious Steak au Poivre, while a finer ground black pepper at 30 to 34 mesh will nicely finish a wild mushroom Madeira or Burgundy sauce. A fine black pepper will help season but get lost on a cooking rib roast, and coarse ground pepper can overpower a delicate piccata or even Marsala, so any chef knows it is important to keep the proper inventory on hand and pick the right tool for the job.

What black pepper gauges do your recipes call for? What could a change-up in mesh size mean for the nuances of your dishes? Have you switched up black for green or white, or pink or Szechuan peppercorn (the “faux peppercorns”) of late? When is the last time you perused Mount Hope Wholesale’s inventory of pepper varieties?

  • Whole Black Peppercorns are the fruit of the Piperaceae vine family, piper nigrum. It’s native to a southern state of India called Kerala.
  • Half Cracked Black pepper is perfect for crusting meat or baking in bread or biscuits. Also for a fuller flavor on salads and sauces.
  • Coarse Black is the grind (Mesh #12) which many cooks prefer for that “just ground” presentation, without using a pepper mill.
  • Steel Cut Black pepper is 18 mesh. A bit large for most table top shakers, but more visible during presentation than medium.
  • Medium Black, also called table grind or cafe grind, this variation sits on nearly every dinner table in America. This grind (Mesh #28 for spice merchants) is the one most people know.
  • Fine Black pepper is the chef’s choice for sauces and dishes where pepper’s taste is necessary, but the appearance should be suppressed.
  • Whole White Peppercorns are the inside ripe red berries that have been soaked after harvesting to facilitate the removal of the red skin. Once the skin is removed, the peppercorn is dried.
  • Fine White Pepper is typically a bit finer mesh (in this case #40) than fine black.
  • Whole Green Peppercorns can be crushed to sauces and salad dressings, or cracked on a meat preparation for some visual flair. Use them ground in recipes where you desire a lighter pepper note.
  • Whole Pink Peppercorns (Schinus Terebinthifolius) are botanically not true peppercorns, but are the dried fruit of the Baies Rose Plant. These berries are highly prized by the French for their delicious, peppery flavor and for imparting a light rose color to food.
  • Szechuan Peppercorns have a spicy, woody, and a delightful citrus aroma that gives a tingling sensation to the tip of the tongue.
  • Tellicherry Peppercorns are from the Eastern Coast of South India. The flavor of the Tellicherry is clean and aromatic, and considered the top shelf of peppercorns.
  • Rainbow Peppercorns are combo of red, green, black and white whole corns. Appearances are key here, so garnish with whole corns, or crack for dry rubs or finishing touches where some color is desired.
  • Ground Rainbow pepper is just what you’d think. Try it in soups and marinades of all sorts. Try on salads, meat, vegetable and chicken dishes.
  • Lemon Pepper can be used as a rub or in a marinade to give a great taste to your seafood dish.