What if there were a way to banish blandness from the kitchen? Something simple that could easily be applied to most savory dishes? There is: freshly ground black pepper. Investing in a high-quality pepper grinder is one of the best things you can do for your cooking. Though it might sound like a controversial statement, we’ve got the facts to back it up.
Pepper adds mellow heat that balances other components of food—like acid, salt, and fat—without going too high up the scale of spiciness. This is because ground black pepper contains an essential oil that has the same aromatic flavor of capsicum peppers (aka chili peppers like habaneros, jalapeños, and bird’s eye chilies) without their pungency. Layering freshly ground black pepper into your dishes and finishing with a few grinds overtop both infuses every bite with depth of flavor and highlights the ingredients.
Though it’s easy to think of pepper as an afterthought, it’s so much more than that. The berry we know as pepper (or peppercorns) originates off the Malabar coast of India. This now-common spice was once valuable enough to trade for gold. Next time you reach for your pepper grinder, imagine that what fills it was one of the earliest commodities that traversed the globe between India and Europe. At the store, you’re likely to find white, green, red, and pink peppercorns sold alongside the black ones. Though the pink peppercorns (also known as pepperberries) come from a different plant, the white, red, and green kinds are actually just different stages of ripeness versions of the black kind. We recommend keeping black peppercorns in your go-to pepper grinder for their versatility and affordable price.
How does a pepper mill work?
Grinding peppercorns through a mill pulverizes the dried berries into edible powder, releasing delicious aromatic oils along the way. When you use pre-ground pepper (and we hope you don’t) those oils are not only long gone, pre-ground pepper is often mixed with other ingredients like ground olive pits. Our Hexmill pepper grinder features an adjustable burr grinder (just like fancy coffee grinders do). Unlike blade grinders, burr grinders are adjustable and produce a consistent size grind.
If you’re a recent convert to a proper pepper mill, you’ll want to make sure it gets ample use in the kitchen. Seasoning food with pepper before cooking will mellow its bite. For a stronger flavor, add it after cooking.
With an adjustable pepper mill, you’ll want to put the different grind sizes to use. Opt for extra-fine grind for salad dressings, egg dishes, and any other place where you’d want the flavor of pepper without any unwelcome crunch. The coarser grinds are better for dishes like Italian cacio e pepe or pepper-crusted steak au poivre, where the crunch and intense flavor are part of the appeal.
Freshly ground black pepper is at home in nearly any savory dish, and even some sweet ones, too. Here are a few ideas for making the most of your pepper mill:
- Make your own masala chai by mixing freshly ground black pepper with cardamom, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and mace.
- Brighten up baked or grilled stone fruit with a dollop of whipped cream and a few grinds of pepper.
- Ditch stale, store-bought lemon pepper seasoning and stir together freshly ground black pepper, fresh lemon zest, and kosher salt. Sprinkle on chicken, fish, or steak.
- Make a peppery compound butter by stirring cracked black peppercorns into softened, salted butter. Reshape into a log and chill until ready to use.
- Add a few grinds of black pepper and some flakes of sea salt to top an ice cream sundae. The fruity, funky notes of the peppercorn will play off the rich ice cream and highlight the flaky salt.
- Make a simple syrup with some cracked peppercorns and use it to infuse fresh cocktails like a margarita, gin basil smash, or mojitos.
Stored in an airtight container in a cupboard (or other cool, dark place), peppercorns will last a few years, though their pungency and aromas will decline over time. Compared to the very short shelf life of ground pepper (which loses its aromas quickly after being ground), whole black peppercorns are a worthy investment.