In a western kitchen, the thinking tends to be that everything gets salt and peppered. But to me, pepper is an actual flavour and I use it only when I want a pepper taste – it’s not something I need to have on every single thing. Thai cooking traditionally favours white pepper, although you’ll notice in some of my recipes I often reach for the black pepper, too. So what’s the difference… and what are Sichuan peppercorns, commonly used in dishes such as my Sichuan Bang Bang Chicken Noodles?
You may not have been aware, but black and white peppercorns are actually from the same plant. It’s only the way they’re harvested and processed that divides them. If you take a close-up look at them, you’ll notice white peppercorns are smoother and smaller, while black peppercorns actually have a super-wrinkly outside. That’s because black ones are dried as soon as they’re picked, which gives them that darker, crinkly appearance.
Black and white peppercorns are from the same plant, just processed differently.
And white ones? They’re soaked first before the drying stage, so the outer layer comes off. I find the flavour is more subtle and less harsh. When you go to buy white peppercorns, look for ones that are creamy white. You don’t want ones that are bright white (they may have had chemicals added to them to give them that bleached appearance) or beige.
The pepper plant produces three peppercorn varieties: black peppercorns, white peppercorns and green peppercorns. Note: there are also pink peppercorns, but these aren’t from the pepper plant. They actually come from a variety of rose, and they are the dried berries of that rose. They aren’t super common and are quite hard to come by.
Each has a unique taste and flavour profile. Black peppercorns are by far the most common peppercorn variety out there.
Sichuan peppercorn isn’t a pepper at all. It’s a spice that’s made from the seed husks of the prickly ash shrub, which is actually a member of the citrus family! The pinkish-red husks are used for the spice, and the inner black seed is thrown away (it’s too gritty and not pleasant to eat at all).
Sichuan peppercorns… not ACTUALLY pepper.
Sichuan peppercorns have a citrus-like aroma and create a tingly, numbing sensation on your tongue. They’re used in many traditional Chinese dishes and, in my opinion, make things truly ‘wow’! Additionally, they’re usually toasted to really bring out all their amazingness.
Tellicherry peppercorns are the most flavourful peppercorn variety. They come from Tellicherry, a city in India. They are widely considered to be some of the best peppercorns in the world, and they are much bigger than standard peppercorn varieties.
The different peppercorn varieties absolutely taste different! Black peppercorns, which are the most common, are picked before the berry is just ripe. They have the strongest flavour of the peppercorn varieties – slightly hot with a tiny bit of sweetness.
White peppercorns are a lot less strong and pungent than black peppercorns. BUT if you’re using ground white peppercorns they do taste much, much hotter. If you’re going to be using white peppercorns in your recipes less is definitely more!
Green peppercorns are underripe, they are then freeze dried. They have a more fresh flavour and are normally packed in brine. Green peppercorns are typically available in cans or jars.
With black and white pepper, you can buy it either whole, cracked and either coarsely or finely ground. If you can, it’s always better to buy whole peppercorns rather than pre-ground pepper – that’s because once it’s ground, pepper quickly loses its fragrance and flavour. But I also appreciate that when life is hectic enough, sometimes grinding your own is too much faff! So it definitely comes down to personal choice.
As for Sichuan peppercorns, you’ll find these at your local Asian grocer. Be sure to buy a pack with lots of those husks and not a lot of the gritty seeds!
Dried whole peppercorns last longer than ground pepper. Keep them in a nice cool, dark place in your pantry, and use them up within a year. As for ground pepper, you’ll get the most flavour if you use it up within a few months.
Hope you found my peppercorn guide about the different types of pepper useful! Check out my article on pantry essentials for even more info about my kitchen staples.