You may be surprised to learn that black, white, and green peppercorns are all the same seed of the same plant. The color variation is from the various stages of development and processing. Peppercorns come from the vine Piper nigrum, which is native to India. Pink peppercorns and pink berries are from different plants.
The active ingredient in pepper is piperine, of which as little as 20 parts per million can be detected by your taste buds. The berries grow on spikes, with 50 to 60 berries per spike.
Types of Peppercorns
These are the main types of peppercorns from Piper nigrum:
- Black Peppercorns: You may think that these are the mature fruit of the plant. Not so. They have reached their full size, but are still green and not quite ripe. The fruit is picked and allowed to dry in the sun. Enzymes in the berries cause the skin to turn black during the drying process. This type is the strongest in flavor. Pantry staple ground black pepper is made with black peppercorns.
- White Peppercorns: These are the mature berries that ripen to a red color before being picked. After harvesting, they are soaked and rubbed free of the outer skin, revealing a smooth white underlayer. They are then dried and bleached by the sun. White peppercorns are slightly milder than black pepper. Ground white pepper is used in Asian cuisine and also in light-colored dishes where you don't want black pepper to be visible.
- Green Peppercorns: Green peppercorns are unripe peppercorns picked at the same stage of ripeness as black peppercorns, but not allowed to dry. They may be pickled in vinegar or brine. You may also find them freeze-dried or dehydrated (which is more flavorful). Their flavor and spiciness are less concentrated than black peppercorns and are considered the least pungent of the peppercorns.
- Red Peppercorns: This mature, but unhulled version of the peppercorn is often difficult to find. Check gourmet and health food stores and expect to pay dearly for them if you do find them.
Other Plants Used for Pepper
These types of pepper come from a variety of plants:
- Pink Peppercorns: In spite of its moniker, these are unrelated to the black peppercorn. They come from the Baies rose plant (Euonymus phellomanus), imported from Madagascar. As a result, they are expensive. Pink peppercorns are pungent and slightly sweet, but not nearly as flavorful as the real thing. These berries were once banned by the Food and Drug Administration as a foodstuff, but are now considered safe for consumption. This seed is not to be confused with the Brazilian pepper berry.
- Pink Berries: Also often called pink peppercorn, this berry is also unrelated to the black peppercorn. It is the seed of the Peruvian pepper tree Schinus molle or Schinus terebinthifolius, which is also called Brazilian pepper tree, Christmas berry, or Florida holly. The plant is considered a scourge in Florida. The flavor is hardly spicy hot and has more of a sweet menthol and resinous nature. This berry causes allergic reactions in some, particularly children and those with tree nut allergies, and can be toxic in large quantities. It is not recommended to eat or use as a seasoning.
Cayenne is not included here because it is a Capsicum, related to chili peppers. It is ground from the dried fruit pod rather than the berries.