What is White Pepper?

White Pepper Adds Unique Flavor to Chinese Dishes and Other Cuisines

White and black peppercorns
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White pepper is known for its sharp bite and is used to add extra flavor to Chinese soups, marinades for meat and poultry, and spicier stir-frys. It's also used in white sauces and dishes such as potatoes where the color of black pepper would detract from the appearance of the dish. What is white pepper and how is it different from black pepper or Sichuan peppercorns?

How White Pepper is Produced

Like black pepper, white pepper comes from the dried fruit of the pepper plant, piper nigrum. With white pepper, the dark outer skin of the pepper fruit is removed by soaking before the seed is dried. To make black pepper, unripe pepper berries are picked and then they are dried, which blackens the skin and adds flavor elements.

White pepper is made from fully ripe pepper berries. They are soaked in water for about 10 days, leading to fermentation. Then their skins are removed, which also removes some of the hot piperine compound, as well as volatile oils and compounds that give black pepper its aroma. As a result, white pepper has a different flavor and heat component than black pepper.

How Does the Flavor of White Pepper Differ from Black Pepper?

White pepper is described as being spicier and fruitier than black pepper, but less complex. Some say it has a musty or earthy flavor others say slightly smoky. It's best to only swap one for the other in small amounts in a recipe if you need to make a substitution. White pepper should be added after the dish has been cooked, as overheating can release a bitter flavor.

Sichuan pepper is a different species entirely, that is not closely related to white or black pepper. Its heat element acts in a completely different way. It has a slight lemony taste and a different kind of spicy heat, as it can create a tingly numbness in the mouth.

Uses of White Pepper in Chinese and Asian Cooking

Unlike other Szechuan dishes, where chilies play a prominent role, hot and sour soup gets its heat primarily from white pepper. White pepper is often used in Vietnamese soups and pork dishes. Perhaps because if its use in these cuisines, some people associate its flavor with Asian food when they use it on everyday dishes, such as scrambled eggs. 

Uses of White Pepper in Other Cuisines and Dishes

White pepper is often used to add spice and pepper flavor to white or light-colored foods where visible specks of black pepper would make a less attractive dish. White pepper is used in creamed soups, vichyssoise, mashed or whipped potatoes, and clam chowder. White pepper is often used in Swedish dishes as well, such as Swedish meatballs with cream sauce and is called "vitpeppar" in Swedish.

Can You Swap Black and White Pepper in Recipes?

For small amounts of pepper, white and black pepper may be swapped. When larger amounts are called for, it's not recommended that a swap is made, as the two peppers do have distinct tastes and the taste difference will be more noticeable. Finally, in any recipe where white pepper is used because the food is white or light colored, the swap with black pepper will clearly be noticeable.