Exploring Black Pepper: The "Other" Seasoning We Can't Do Without

Updated on May 5, 2018
Carb Diva profile image

Exploring food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes... one ingredient at a time.

The disparity between a restaurant’s price and food quality rises in direct proportion to the size of the pepper mill.

— Bryan Q. Miller (American television and comic writer)

Would You Like Some Freshly Ground Pepper With That?

Source

Every day thousands of waitpersons in thousands of restaurants ask that question. Pepper mills near the size of the Seattle Space Needle hover expectantly over dinner plates, soups, and salads, anxious to adorn our "almost perfect meal" with a light shower of flavorful black dots.

Today this daily ritual of pepper presentation is routine, perfunctory, and inexpensive. No seasoning, other than salt, is more ubiquitous.

But, don't confuse "black pepper" with vegetables that also have "pepper" in their names. Bell peppers, chili peppers, cayenne peppers—all of these provide a peppery "bite", but they are not related to the black pepper in the tall slender grinders.

Black pepper is actually the dried fruit of a flowering vine in the family Piperaceae. To produce black pepper, the green berries are picked and dried in the sun until they shrivel and turn black.

beautiful black peppercorns
beautiful black peppercorns

But It's Nothing To Sneeze At

Today, pound for pound, black pepper is one of the least expensive spices, one of the most popular, and certainly one of the most plentiful in production. According to the United States Department of Commerce, in 2013 the U.S. imported 70,000 metric tons of black pepper.

Why Is Black Pepper Such a Big Deal?

The pepper vine (Piper nigrum), native to Kerala, a province in southwest India, has been prized since ancient times and was once one of the most valuable substances on earth. Not only could its sharpness enliven otherwise bland foods, it could disguise the flavor of foods that were, let's say, somewhat less than fresh (a big consideration in times when refrigeration did not exist).

However, black pepper was far more than a seasoning. It was used as a currency (along with gold) to pay tolls, taxes, and ransoms. It was a sacred offering to the Greek gods

The quest to discover new paths to these “riches of the Orient” led to exploration by Portuguese sailors and the Spanish monarchy. It was due to these travels that many new lands were discovered and major merchant cities were established in Europe and the Middle East.

A Timeline of the Pepper Trade

1000 B.C. – Arabian traders enjoyed a huge monopoly in the spice business. To protect their valuable routes, they created stories of dragons guarding the pepper groves.

40 A.D. – The Romans had a thriving trade in pepper, carried by July monsoon winds from the southwestern coast of India to Alexandria. (Apparently, they were not afraid of dragons).

476 A.D. – With the fall of the Roman Empire, other groups began to take over the spice trade. Under the unifying influence of Islam, Arabs once again organized and became dominant in the trade of pepper.

10th Century A.D. – By this time pepper had become important in Europe. It is reported that English King Ethelred II (978-1016) required 10 pounds of pepper from German spice traders as payment for doing business in London.

15th Century A.D. – By the end of this century, spice merchants from Alexandria were bringing pepper to Venice, over 400 tons every year. Thus Venice became the distribution center for pepper in Europe, and they marked up the price about 40 percent! This Venetian price-gouging was enough to spur the rest of Europe into exploration. And so began the age of Christopher Columbus, Vasco de Gama, Sir Francis Drake and other explorers.

1500 to 1600 A.D. – de Gama was the first person to reach India by sailing around Africa. The Portuguese controlled the spice trade, importing about 2 million kilograms of pepper each year. But this dominance came at a considerable price. It is estimated that up to 30 percent of Portuguese trading vessels were lost en route.

17th Century – The Dutch established colonies in Bantam, Ceylon, Java, Lompong, and Malabar and thus became dominant players in the spice trade.

The Black Pepper Market in the 21st Century

Black pepper is still by monetary value, the most widely traded spice in the world, accounting for 20 percent of all spice imports. Although native to southwestern Indian, the plant is cultivated in other tropical regions. Vietnam is now the largest producer and exporter, contributing about 34 percent of the black pepper sold each year. Other major producers include India (20%), Brazil (13%), Indonesia (9%), Malaysia (8%), Sri Lanka (6%), China (6%), and Thailand (4%).

Cast your vote for Recipes Featuring Black Pepper

Recipes

Appetizers and Snacks

  • Goat cheese crostini with blueberry balsamic black pepper jam
  • Brown sugar and black pepper bacon

Salad

  • Black pepper chicken salad

Bread

  • Black pepper biscuits
  • Black pepper parmesan beer bread

Main Dishes

  • Pasta with pepper and Pecorino Romano cheese
  • Black pepper shrimp

Goat Cheese Crostini with Blueberry Balsamic Black Pepper Jam

I have so many recipes to share with you. Some are my own creations, and some are links to other creative cooks. I have organized them by category:

Ingredients

Directions

  1. Heat broiler. Brush both sides of baguette slices with oil; place on a rimmed baking sheet. Broil until golden, 1 to 2 minutes per side; set toasts aside.
  2. Dividing evenly, spread each toast with goat cheese, and top with jam.

Brown Sugar and Black Pepper Bacon

Is everything better with bacon? Well, this recipe makes bacon itself even better. Bacon is glazed with smokey sweet brown sugar with a little bite from the black pepper. Sweet, savory, smokey, and delicious. This makes a great garnish or snack.

Black Pepper Chicken Salad

Ingredients

  • 2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts

  • olive oil
  • fresh ground black pepper
  • coarse Kosher salt
  • 1/2 cup smoked almonds, coarsely chopped
  • 1/2 cup celery, diced
  • 1/2 cup dried cranberries
  • 1 tsp. fresh rosemary, minced
  • 2 tablespoons fresh chives, minced
  • 1/3 cup mayonnaise, (I used non-fat)
  • 1/3 cup plain Greek yogurt

Directions

  1. Prepare your grill/coals for grilling over medium-high heat. Pat chicken breasts dry with a paper towel. Brush chicken breasts with olive oil. Sprinkle the chicken breasts with ground black pepper, to taste. Sprinkle the chicken breasts lightly with kosher salt, to taste.
  2. When coals are ready, place chicken breasts on the grill over the hot coals and cook, turning every 3-4 minutes and cooking for approximately 15-20 minutes or until juices run clear. Then take the chicken off the grill onto a clean plate and let it rest for 5 minutes. After 5 minutes, cut the chicken into bite-size pieces.

Combine all ingredients and chopped chicken in mixing bowl. Eat as a salad on top of mixed greens or as a chicken salad sandwich filling.

Substitutes

This is such a versatile recipe. Here are a few suggestions on how to adapt it to what you have on hand. Add or substitute:

  • Herbs
    • Use fresh minced tarragon in place of the rosemary
  • Fruits
    • Add sliced seedless grapes, or
    • Diced apple, or
    • Chopped fresh pitted cherries
  • Crunch
    • Pumpkin seeds
  • Savory/salty
    • Crumbled bacon
    • Shredded Cheddar cheese
    • Shredded Swiss cheese

Black Pepper Biscuits

Source

This recipe is adapted from one prepared by Bobby Flay on the Food Network.

Ingredients

  • 4 cups all-purpose flour plus more
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons baking powder
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) chilled butter, cubed
  • 2 cups heavy cream plus more for brushing
  • 2 tablespoons coarsely ground black pepper

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 375°F. Whisk 4 cups flour and next 3 ingredients in a large bowl. Add butter; blend with your fingers until pea-size pieces form. Add cream; stir until dough forms, adding more cream by tablespoonfuls if dry. Transfer to a lightly floured surface; roll to 3/4" thickness. Using biscuit cutter, cut into rounds. Repeat until all dough is used.
  2. Transfer biscuits to a parchment paper-lined baking sheet. Brush tops with cream, sprinkle with black pepper and transfer to oven. Bake until golden brown, 25-30 minutes. Serve warm

Black Pepper Parmesan Beer Bread

This black pepper bread is the easiest bread recipe you will ever make. There's no yeast, no kneading, no waiting for the dough to rise. Just dump all of the ingredients into a bowl, stir, pour into a prepared pan and bake for one hour. Ta da!

Pasta with Pepper and Pecorino Romano Cheese

Ingredients

  • 1 pound spaghetti or other dried pasta of your choice
  • 1 3/4 cups Pecorino Romano cheese, finely shredded
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

Directions

  1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add pasta and cook according to package directions until al dente. Drain the pasta, reserving 1 cup of the cooking water.
  2. Return pasta and cooking water to the pot and place over low heat. Add remaining ingredients and stir until cheese and butter have melted and formed a creamy sauce, about 5 minutes. Taste for seasoning and serve with additional cheese if desired.

Black Pepper Shrimp

This is not your typical sauteed shrimp. Asian flavors of oyster sauce and rice wine meld with black pepper and garlic to create an umami-rich sauce in less than 20 minutes. You will want to make steamed rice, noodles, or some crusty french bread so that not one drop of that amazing sauce goes to waste.

Questions & Answers

    © 2015 Linda Lum

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      • lawrence01 profile image

        Lawrence Hebb 

        2 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

        Linda

        The wife's on gluten free at the moment (Doctors orders) but the Black pepper and Chicken salad sounds delicious, and as sion as we can the Pasta dish! (I'm missing the pasta....but don't tell her!!)

        Lawrence

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        2 years ago from Washington State, USA

        Lawrence - isn't the history of food fascinating? There is so MUCH more to what we eat than merely filling our stomachs. Thanks for the added info and for stopping by. Glad I made you hungry. Are you going to try any of the recipes?

      • lawrence01 profile image

        Lawrence Hebb 

        2 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

        Linda

        Awesome. Just reading this made me feel hungry!

        Did you know that the Romans measured a person's wealth not by the amount of gold they (or their wives) wore but by the amount of pepper provided by the hosts at feasts!

        Those wealthy enough to own pepper could flaunt it!

        Lawrence

        By the way, the pepper was brought up the red sea to Eilat and transported overland to Alexandria. Just north of the route was Jerusalem which is why it was so important to Rome

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        3 years ago from Washington State, USA

        Chantelle - Thank you for your interest. My hope is that by giving some "food for thought" in addition to the recipes, people will learn and remember.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        3 years ago from Washington State, USA

        Bill, if not for the fact that black pepper is incredibly easy to find (AND CHEAP), I would say 'more for the rest of us.' However, I thank you for your kind words.

      • Chantelle Porter profile image

        Chantelle Porter 

        3 years ago from Chicago

        I just love reading about the history of food. so interesting.

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 

        3 years ago from Olympia, WA

        This is probably going to sound odd, but I'm not a big fan of black pepper. I know, it's strange, but I rarely use it. Now that takes nothing away from this excellent article; it's just an observation. :)

        Have a great, wet weekend.

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