Friday, May 14, 2010

Rethinking Black Pepper: Does it Really Go on Everything?

Working in top kitchens around the world, it has always baffled me when a renowned chef would taste something, say . . . a sauce, and confidently suggest a few twists from a pepper mill. What!?! Pepper?!?
Don’t get me wrong, I love the nuanced flavor and heat delivered by black pepper, but for me there’s a time and a place. We don’t crack fresh cumin seeds or cardamom pods into every dish; their flavor is too specific. Is the flavor of black pepper so different?
How did those little black pellets make their way on to almost every table? And into almost every recipe in the western world, which seasons with “salt and pepper to taste?” Black pepper, a tiny black dot on the map of spices hailing from India and its surrounding areas, has taken over to the extent that we don’t even think about it anymore; we just dust everything with it.
Salt is makes sense. It lets the world’s cooks enhance their efforts with the only mineral we consume directly. Our bodies need it. It can be found on all continents and even in countries that don’t apply salt itself to food (which is a relatively recent development in the world of salt) they add it indirectly in the form of a product derived from the use of salt; such as soy sauce, shrimp and anchovy paste, and garum. ***
Black pepper, however, is a particular spice, the dried immature berry of the piper nigrum plant. It originates in one area of world, but has spread like wildfire in a conflagration that is still raging today. How did it become so pervasive and does it even matter?
Well, the best I can figure is this: black pepper was one of the most prized and prominent spices around the emergence from the dark ages. The Portuguese, who thought they had a monopoly, were peddling it by the boatload while the venetians were smuggling it en masse. As a result, it was readily available and semi-affordable due to the unexpected surplus; this at a time when recipes we’re first being recorded. Also chefs to kings we’re being shuffled around as gifts, spreading its use and reinforcing the association of pepper with wealth. An important connection that brought about the popularity of a few other key imports, such as tea. In so doing, Europe managed to lay the foundation for the pepper empire . . . Also it doesn’t matter.
Pepper’s history doesn’t excuse us from assessing its use a little better than we do. First, to utilize it properly, it HAS to be ground fresh directly into its destination. In my research, many sources say that ground pepper keeps for up to three months, but my estimation is somewhere more in the ballpark of 3-5 minutes. When you crack or crush something and it smells amazing, (think coffee) it’s because whatever ever is in there that tastes so good is bursting out . . .ideally into your food and not the air. Packaged pre-ground pepper should be illegal, as it's the culinary equivalent of saw dust.
Also the application of black pepper could be a little less habitual. It doesn’t need to go on everything. You have to ask yourself why it is that you’re adding pepper to this dish: Is it for heat? Because that burn could obviously come from other options like cayenne pepper, paprika, fresh chiles etc. Is it for the aroma? If so, why not test the spunk of a different spice; say . . . caraway or mustard seeds. If you run through your options and pepper turns out to be perfect for the need, then by all means, grind away. It’s just that very few people take the time to assess, from home cooks to the greatest chefs; they just reach for the pepper mill.
Pepper has special place in my kitchen, and it sees a lot of action; just not all the action. It’s one of my favorite spices, but over time and with consideration, I have pared back its use because it just isn’t right for every application. I just look for the right time and place.

***- Please take your salt out of that grinder. You’ve been duped by marketing. There is no volatile compound in salt that necessitates it- it’s a rock. In other words, freshly ground salt is no different than the stuff in the box.


  1. This reminds me of the book "Two Dudes, One Pan" by Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo. They specifically talk about how they think black pepper is misused and often overpowers dishes. Really made me rethink my own use of it.

  2. Heat was once a much rarer commodity in western cuisines, and the original "pepper" was an import from the east called 'Long Pepper'. Long Pepper, a distant relative of the peppercorn plant, has more specific growing conditions and was used popularly in Greek/Roman times. Out-competed for production in the west after introduction of the Black Pepper Corn plant, Long Pepper quickly fell out of popularity. The western obsession with black pepper is a result of never having capsaicin available in another form - chillies being discovered in the Americas post 1500, and not making their way into distant cuisines until one or two hundred years later.

  3. It's funny that I just came across this as I have been pondering this very subject lately. It started with scrambled eggs. Everyone peppers their eggs and I was thinking: to me, the scrambled egg is a comfort and luxury rich with butter, lightly cooked, delicate and what if I don't want black pepper all over them! I do love pepper - don't get between me and a proper steak au poivre - but there is a time, and a place.

    Another thing: why do they ask in restaurants, always, if I want pepper (or grated cheese, etc) when they bring a dish and before I have had a chance to sample it? First of all, should I not assume the chef has seasoned it/added cheese to his recommended tasting and also, how do I know if I want more pepper or salt or anything without taking a bite? The automatic addition of pepper has become far too knee-jerk. But, as a chef, if you could answer the "would you like some freshly ground pepper?" waiter question, I would so greatly appreciate it!


  4. LOL, this is a good question. I don't know where the "would you like pepper with that?" table side offering comes from.
    But I would say that entirely trusting your dish to a chef behind closed doors is a relatively new thing. It wasn't so long ago eating in a restaurant was a pretty rare thing, and that if you did eat out, you brought your eating preferences with you. hence the condiment offerings. (also ketchup, mustard, steak sauce etc.)
    Still it would stand to question why they don't just let you do it yourself.
    who knows, I'll look into it a little.

  5. Thanks! Seems to be a trend in the higher end places. As though the strain of twisting a pepper grinder would be too much for my fair and feeble wrists. But without fail, the question is asked before tasting, and if I reply something along the lines of "oh, I'm not sure yet if I'd like pepper with this" I get a look as though I'm some lunatic girl who doesn't know if she likes pepper. At Per Se however, there is none of that. Keller gets the pepper right every time (or Jonathan, or whomever is inna kitchen).

    Thanks again!!!

  6. No, no, no. No more pepper.
    I think it's just a response to the cut back on salt because of health reasons.
    Now since salt doesn't 'provide the flavour' they have to do something so they choose black pepper.
    Let the food speak for itself.
    Stop feeling the need to heat things up, give it zing or whatever.

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