Posted Online: March 19, 2013, 9:38 am

Kitchen tip: Peppercorns 101

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Photo: Los Angeles Times/MCT
Peppercorns come in a variety of colors, and each spices and flavors food in its own way.
Sure, it's a common table spice now, but did you know pepper was once extremely expensive? It was of the most valued items during the time of the spice trade.

Peppercorns come in a variety of colors, and each spices and flavors food in its own way:

Black peppercorns (Piper nigrum) are the most common type of peppercorn. The spice actually is a dried berry. The berries are picked when they are just turning red but still underripe, then dried until the skin shrivels and darkens.

White peppercorns come from the same species, P. nigrum, but the berry is ripened and the skin removed before drying. It often is used in place of black pepper in light-colored foods and sauces so it won't be visually noticed but still can lend some pungency.

Green peppercorns also come from the same soft, underripe P. nigrum. They are preserved through artificial drying or in water, vinegar or brine. Green peppercorns tend to lend a fresh, green flavor as well as some pungency. If the peppercorns are preserved just as they begin to turn red, they may be called "red pepper," though these are not the same as pink peppercorns.

Pink (or red) peppercorns actually are fruits from a different tree (Schinus terebinthifolius). Generally sweeter and more aromatic than p. nigrum, the peppercorns are often used as a decoration or garnish on a plated dish.

Peppercorns can be found whole, cracked, ground and powdered. For the freshest and most intense flavor, buy peppercorns whole and grind right before using.