A fresh peppercorn, plucked right from its vine, is green. It tastes a bit fruity, followed by a sting of heat. Green peppercorns are under-ripe berries, most often found in stores preserved in jars. Common black peppercorns are green berries that have been dried. White peppercorns are black ones whose skins have been removed. They have both a fiery, but also less pungent taste, and are good for light-colored sauces and foods. Finally, red peppercorns are berries that are allowed to fully ripen on the vine.
While most peppercorns are picked as soon as the immature green berries appear on the vine, Tellicherry grade berries (named after a port town in the state of Kerala on India’s Malabar Coast) are left to ripen the longest. This allows the pepper’s flavor to fully develop, becoming deeper and more complex, even a little fruity—not just sharp, hot, and bright like peppercorns made from younger berries.
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These different treatments cause the heat of the spice to hit different areas of your mouth, says Matt O’Neil, chef/owner of Ledger Restaurant & Bar in Salem, Mass., which was, in colonial days, the epicenter of the pepper trade. Black pepper is tasted in your front palate, while white pepper hits the roof of your mouth and red pepper hits your throat. “If you use multiple peppers, you can get rolling heat rather than one dash of spice,” he explains.
No matter which you choose, stick with whole berries, advises nutritionist Chase. Pre-ground pepper is quickly oxidized by light and oxygen, taking away much of its nutritional value, she says. “There is still some viable potassium in old pepper powder but the medicinal properties are lost,” she adds. “So fresh peppercorns and grinding just before ingesting is very important.”