The tyranny of black pepper

The tyranny of black pepper
Black pepper, white pepper. (Photo: Louis Pieterse)

If we’re using pepper, it must be black and freshly ground, we’ve been told for decades. Time to fight back.


The author supports Isabelo, chef Margot Janse’s charity which feeds school children every day. Please support them here.

First published in DM168 

When my generation was growing up, nearly all the pepper was white and powdered. You could buy white peppercorns, but our parents, having survived a world war, weren’t given to fussing about matters of scant import. They just bought powdered white pepper, plonked it on the kitchen table, and sprinkled it over whatever food was in front of them, along with salt. There was no reason to question this. It was as it was. 

Okay, we still flinch when our parents or grandparents pour salt and pepper over everything without tasting anything first. But that’s another story. 

Then, one day – no one can remember quite when – a peppery spanner was thrown into the works. Pepper, said the Food Police, must henceforth be black, and freshly ground. White pepper is verboten! cried the pfeffer polizei. (Food Police? No one ever saw them, but they were there, somewhere, in the wings, out of sight, perhaps hiding behind the kitchen cupboard with spy cameras and mysterious files clutched underarm with Your Name written on them, poking about in your condiments and reading the fine print on your tins. I know I know, I’ve just made your kitchen cupboards a bit scary. Sorry.) 

In what seemed like an instant, white pepper suddenly became pepper non grata for no reason that anyone could identify, and from whence forward for what now must be a couple of generations we were all to use only black pepper, freshly ground from the peppercorns themselves, yet with no reasons given other than, no, that’s what you have been told, you must do it. So sayeth the Pepper Police. If you doubt this, think back to every menu description and recipe you’ve read for the past 40 years, and the phrase “freshly ground black pepper” is on almost every one of them. 

Well, everything absolute must be challenged. If not, dictators will continue to rule and others rise to power. 

(Photo: Louis Pieterse)

What’s the difference anyway? 

They start out life exactly the same. They grow on a vine, which means peppercorns are a fruit. If they’re picked when they are almost ripe and still “green” (though in fact they are more often described as “red”, not to be confused with pink peppercorns, which aren’t pepper at all … still with me?), they’re soaked in hot water and then laid out to wrinkle and dry, during which process the outer layer (the pericarp) turns black. The drupe (yep, like cashews, cherries, olives and mangoes, peppercorns are drupes) only answers to the name “black peppercorn” once this process is complete. 

White peppercorns are the seed of the drupe once it has dried on the vine. When picked, the outer layer is removed in a “retting” process which takes up to a week, during which time the soaking softens the outer layer so it can be rubbed away. The “naked seed” that remains, as Wikipedia describes it, is then dried, and we have white peppercorns. 

And that, my dear gourmands, is why black peppercorns have that extra bite, but less subtlety (there, I’ve said it), than their white counterparts. And don’t we like subtlety in the kitchen? If one type of peppercorn dominates a flavour mix, and the other is clearly present but does not dominate, isn’t the latter the one we want? If we’re to achieve balance in a dish? 

White pepper tastes sweeter than black. Its flavour is often described as earthy. Its powder is finer. Its detractors like to refer to its “barnyard” flavour. (Oh, come on.) Because of its pale hue, chefs making a béchamel prefer white pepper, to avoid visible black flakes. Julia Child preferred white; Jacques Pépin only used black. They even fought on screen about it. 

White pepper is used in Chinese (not least the popular salt and pepper shrimp, and did you know that in a “hot and sour soup” the heat comes not from chilli but from white pepper?), Vietnamese, Japanese and other Asian cuisines, in Portugal and in Sweden, in Mexico, and has long been in wide use in French kitchens. And the French know something about subtlety of flavour.

I have recently been using a lot more white pepper, to refresh my palate as it were, and I am very happy with the result. I’m finding white pepper much more pleasing and arresting to the palate. In any kind of white sauce or derivative of that, white pepper is best. I much prefer it in mashed potato or other vegetable purees such as pumpkin or parsnip. I’d prefer white pepper in a fish dish, and in creamed soups and chowders. 

(Photo: Louis Pieterse)

It’s best to add white pepper at the end of cooking, so that its flavour is fresh and crisp; if cooked in a dish it releases bitter notes which might not be what you’re looking for. 

White pepper is, frankly, less “peppery”, so it adds an underbelly of pepper flavour without that dominant and unmistakable “pepperiness” that black peppercorns give. The reason it is less “peppery” is that it simply contains less piperine, the alkaloid that gives pepper its particular bite, just as capsaicin gives a chilli its kick. 

So, yes, I hear you: would we argue the toss for a chilli that didn’t have its full kick? I can’t say I would. But a chilli without its bite would be little more than a miniature bell pepper. Whereas a peppercorn without its outer layer would still, decidedly, be a peppercorn, with a great deal of flavour to please the demanding cook. 

I’m certainly not going to banish black peppercorns from my pantry, and I’m not saying that as a sop to the pfeffer polizei lurking in there (they’re still there by the way, I just checked). That crack of the pepper grinder is a chef’s delight, and a diner’s joy too. But I would like to see three cellars on the restaurant table from now on: salt, black peppercorns, and white pepper powder. 

Do feel encouraged to go out and buy some white pepper to add to your kitchen repertoire, and let us know how you’re using it and what you appreciate about it. 

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some intruders in my pantry to deal with. *grabs pepperspray and balaclava* DM/TGIFood

To enquire about Tony Jackman’s book, foodSTUFF (Human & Rousseau) please email him at [email protected]


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Carel Jooste says:

    Who can forget those flamboyant waiters brandishing huge pepper mills with ‘continental’ flair. The height of 1980’s restaurant style.
    Every year I look forward to winter when my tribe makes bean soup. At last something where white pepper is mandatory.

  • Annelie De Wet says:

    Thank you for this article, Tony Jackman. I am jealous that I didn’t think of writing it. I couldn’t agree more – white pepper is a full taste sensation, whilst black pepper is simply nice, like a sweetie is sometimes nice after a long car drive.

  • Chris Hill says:

    Nice article. A plain boiled egg also requires salt and white pepper!

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