White pepper is often used in dishes that need a peppery bite but where you don't want black flecks, such as in white sauces and potato dishes. In Chinese cuisine, ground white pepper is used to add flavor to soups, marinades for meat and poultry, and spicier stir-fries. It is different from black pepper or Sichuan peppercorns.
What Is White Pepper?
White pepper is a spice produced from the dried fruit of the pepper plant, Piper nigrum, as is black pepper. It is usually milder than black pepper, with less complex flavor. Both whole and ground white pepper are available.
White Pepper vs. Black Pepper
While they come from the berries of the same plant, the difference between white pepper and black pepper starts when the berries are picked. 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. The process used and handling of white pepper can introduce different flavor notes as well.
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, creating a tingly numbness in the mouth.
Whole vs. Ground
Whole peppercorns retain their flavor for much longer, so recipes often advise using freshly ground pepper. The same is true with white peppercorns. If want the most flavor, grind it fresh before using. Ground white pepper is readily available, but it will lose its potency faster over time. Both ground and whole white pepper go stale faster than black pepper, so be sure to refresh your stock regularly.
What Does It Taste Like?
White pepper has a hot taste on the tongue, although sources differ on whether it is hotter or milder than black pepper. For example, one spice marketer says milder, as does Cook's Illustrated, while others say it has a sharper bite. Sources agree that white pepper is less complex in flavor than black pepper. It can have a musty, earthy, or grassy flavor, which can vary depending on the type of processing used and handling after production. If you don't like those notes you should try a different source of white pepper. The widespread use of white pepper in Asian cuisine can mean that people associate it with that flavor profile.
Cooking With White Pepper
White pepper should be added after the dish has been cooked, as overheating can release a bitter flavor. It is chosen over black pepper either for appearance (as in creamed soups, vichyssoise, mashed or whipped potatoes, and clam chowder) or because of the difference in heat and flavor, as in Asian dishes.
Recipes With White Pepper
White pepper is often used in Vietnamese soups and pork dishes. Hot and sour soup gets its heat primarily from white pepper, unlike other Szechuan dishes where chilies play a prominent role. White pepper is used in Swedish dishes as well, such as Swedish meatballs with cream sauce and is called "vitpeppar" in Swedish.
For small amounts of pepper, white and black pepper may be swapped. When larger amounts are called for, it's not recommended that a substitution 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.
Where to Buy White Pepper
You can find white pepper in the spice section of your supermarket. It is usually more expensive than black pepper because it takes more processing and less of it is produced.
Store white pepper in a tightly sealed container away from light. The peppercorns will store longer than ground white pepper, which will lose its flavor and potency after about three months. It won't spoil and will be safe to use, but you may need more to get the same flavor in your dish. For this reason, it's wise to purchase ground white pepper in smaller quantities that you will use in a shorter time frame.