Salt and pepper are unquestionably the world’s most popular, most loved, and most used condiments and spices. No country’s cuisine is without salt and pepper because they add depth, heat, and richness to just about every dish. Whether you buy pre-ground black pepper or whole peppercorns to grind in your mill at home, black pepper – known as the “King of Spices” – is no doubt the first spice you reach for when you’re cooking the family meal at dinner time. Some recipes call for whole peppercorns, while others call for finely or coarsely ground. Either way, pepper is a key ingredient in practically every meal served at supper tables around the globe.
Pepper is more than just a flavor-adding spice, however. It is also an important part of your daily healthy eating habits, and in many traditional medicines, pepper plays a key role. For countless centuries, mankind has used pepper to make food delicious and to help stay healthy.
Do you think you know all there is to know about this popular kitchen spice? Think again! There are lots to learn about this marvelous spice, including how its flavor changes depending on how finely you grind it. Here are a few facts about your kitchen’s hardest working spice that you may not have been aware of!
What makes black pepper so flavorful?
When black peppercorns fully ripen, or mature, they offer their strongest flavor. A chemical compound, called piperine, is in the peppercorn’s skin, and that’s what gives pepper the fiery taste you love so much. But pepper has lots more than just heat to offer: there are notes of citrus and pine in its flavor, too. But the more pepper you put into a recipe, the more the heat from the piperine shines through.
Black pepper also has a wonderfully pungent aroma. That’s because other elements within peppercorns contribute to its scent, and lend it complex notes of orange and other citruses.
And once you add in other herbs and spices to your dish, pepper’s wonderful flavors get boosted even more. Adding rosemary, for example, brings forward the flavor of pine, while adding coriander brings out pepper’s citrus notes. Certain berries magnify pepper’s woodsy flavors.
Black pepper works beautifully in concert with just about any spice you can name, and a recipe made without it is sort of like a day without sunshine — drab, dull, and much less enjoyable!
Using these herbs and spices, along with others, brings out the best in peppercorns. They amplify its flavor and enhance its aroma in the best possible ways, making pepper even more delicious than it is by itself.
Why does black pepper grind size matter?
Black pepper grind size matters for a host of reasons. Grinds reveal how finely the peppercorns are broken down when milled. As a general rule, the bigger the piece of peppercorn (or flake, as lots of people refer to it) the longer the flavor lasts in storage. That’s why most professional chefs (and good amateur chefs, too!) like to grind fresh black pepper from whole peppercorns. Doing this at the moment you’re making your dish ensures the most flavor from the fresh pepper shines through.
Keep this guiding principle in mind the next time you reach for your black pepper grinder: if you want a smooth but thorough dousing of flavor all through your dish, keep the pepper grinder on fine. If it’s bursts of flavor you’re going for, use a coarse setting as your black pepper grind size, and bursts of flavor are what you’ll get!
When to use what black pepper grind size? A guide for measuring:
Defining what constitutes a fine or coarse grind isn’t difficult – just look at the holes at the bottom of the grinder. There are standardized sizes of mesh, called the U.S. Mesh Size, which determines how many holes should be in a sieve. The more holes there are, the finer the grind. And the finer the grind, the more evenly distributed the flavor from the pepper grinder will be. This rule applies to every spice you grind, not solely pepper or salt.
Whole black peppercorns: (Referred to as 6 Mesh)
Using whole peppercorns, or berries, in a recipe gives the biggest punch of flavor and aroma. Whole peppercorns are great for soups, stocks, marinades, and some roasts. They are just the ticket for your black pepper grinder at home because using them means you determine the black pepper grind size for every different recipe you make. When you buy them, they are at their freshest and ready for your mill, or grinder.
Cracked peppercorns: (Referred to as 8-10 Mesh)
These are large pieces of peppercorns and when you put them into your recipe, you’ll get a wallop of wonderful flavor every time you (or your guests) take a bite. This kind of coarse pepper also makes for a marvelous garnish, sprinkled over a creamy soup, for example. Make cheddar cheese soup with a chicken stock base, whip in a little cream and flour to thicken it up, and scatter some cracked, black pepper over each serving when you’re dishing it out. It tastes wonderful, but it looks great, too!
Coarse black pepper: (Referred to as 12-14 Mesh)
This large black pepper grind size lends a bold, rich flavor to any dish and plenty of professional cooks like this setting on their grinders the best. It strikes the right balance between strong flavor and even distribution of taste, giving your dish the best of all possible grinds. Using coarse black pepper on barbecue meats or vegetable skewers, in salads and soups, or on a roast before you pop it into the oven makes the food taste fantastic. In fact, just about every recipe benefits from a dash of coarsely ground black pepper.
Table ground pepper: (Referred to as 18-28 Mesh)
This is the black pepper grind size you’ll recognize from every restaurant table you’ve ever visited. It is ideal for achieving a somewhat milder, consistent and even pepper flavour on chicken, in barbecue sauces and marinades, and in salad dressings.
Fine black pepper: (Referred to as 30-60 Mesh)
Because this is the finest black pepper grind size you can achieve, it offers a smooth, even, and rich flavor, but the pepper’s appearance is “disguised,” so to speak, hidden in the food rather than standing out, as it does when you sprinkle it over a cream soup. If you want lots of flavors but don’t want the visual aspect of pepper to stand out, this is the grind for you. For example, if you’re making a balsamic vinegar salad dressing, you don’t want big flecks of black pepper clearly visible, so using a fine grind is the right choice.
Bottom line: Is the grind size truly important?
In a word, yes! Using the right black pepper grind size can make a big difference to the zing and bite of the dish you’re serving. All chefs know that having a good quality pepper grinder at hand is a crucial tool for preparing great meals. So if you’re a home cook – and who isn’t these days? – and don’t have a pepper grinder, you should invest in one as soon as you can. Grinding black pepper to the right size for your recipe contributes enormously to the zest of the food you’re making, and that keeps everyone happy and satisfied at mealtimes.
Be sure you choose a grinder that has all the settings we’ve talked about here – fine, coarse, and medium. A top-notch grinder ensures that your fine grind is consistently powdery, with no little pieces of peppercorn sneaking into the grind.
No matter what level of peppery flavor you’re after, whether it’s a fiery pop in one bite or a smooth, subtle heat throughout the dish, pepper is the spice you should always have in your kitchen cupboard or on your spice shelf. It’s versatile, flavorful, and good for you, so what are you waiting for? Get some fresh peppercorns today, and your family, friends, and healthy body will all say “thanks!” And isn’t that the greatest reward every home cook hopes for the most?