Major Pepper

The Kitchen

    Let us for a brief moment, contemplate the average American table setting. Do you notice anything odd? Here, let me help you. [pushes everything aside except for the salt and pepper shakers] How about now? Well of course you don't. Because salt and pepper have always stood together ever since ...  well, a long time.
    But how did the king of spices come to play a pre-ground Tonto to salt's Lone Ranger? I suspect that food processors during the Industrial Revolution, cashed in on pepper's former cache by pre-grinding it and then mixing it up with coal dust, and pencil shavings, thus increasing their profits and lowering the flavor expectations of generations of cooks.
    Well I'm here to say, it's going to stop. If you've got a pepper shaker on your table, I want you to pick it up. I want you to go over to the window, open the window, and yell, "I'M MAD AS ..." You know, on second thought, maybe you can make it into a cinnamon shaker for your cappuccino. But as for pepper, from now on it will reign again as the king of spices. At least it will here, on ...
["Good Eats" theme plays]

The History of Black Pepper, Part I

GUESTS (Animated): Englishman and Arabian

    The story of pepper starts about 1000 B.C. when Piper nigrum, harvested on the Malabar Coast, is moved into Europe by Arab traders who maintain their monopoly on the spice by making up crazy stories as to its origin.

1000 BC


ENGLISHMAN: So, where's this pepper stuff come from, anyway?
ARABIAN: Well, African swallows carry the seeds to the top of Russian mountains where they're consumed by dragons ... yeah ... who sneeze them out in great billows of fire. Then specially trained monkeys run into the caves and pick them up while the dragon sleeps.
EM: Are you sure?
A: Yep. Pretty sure.


GUEST: Sergeant Pepper

    Technically speaking, true peppercorns are the fruits of a tropical vine, Piper nigrum, commonly found climbing up palms, eucalyptus trees, and often, even man-made trellises. Now the fruits themselves are packed into dense little spikes containing 50 or more berries that start out green before eventually turning yellow and then red as they mature. Now I'm sure that if we really look hard around here, we will eventually see [spots a man on a ladder] ...  What in the world?

AB: Hello.
SERGEANT PEPPER: Ah, good morning.
AB: What are you doing?
SP: Why, I'm taking these peppers to harvest, of course. Name's Pepper.
AB: Yeah? Military?
SP: Yes, quite. Sergeant, actually.
AB: [mugging for the camera] Sergeant Pepper.
SP: Um hmm.

AB: Tell me, do you know anything about your namesake spice here?
SP: Well, I should say so. My partner, Mr. Kite, and I are in the pepper biz. Fascinating spice, really. As you know that the berries can render multiple products depending on how they're treated.

Piper nigrum

AB: Really?
SP: Yes. If you pick the pepper prior to maturity then ferment and dry it, you have the black peppercorn [shows a sample inside his coat] ...
AB: Gracious!
SP:  ... which is graded geographically.

Black Peppercorns

AB: Oh, so they're kind of like coffee beans.
SP: Exactly. Good show, yes! Malabar and Tellicherry peppercorns from India. Quite well known. And the Sarawak from Malaysia; that's a good one. Oh, and Lampong from Indonesia ...
Malabar & Tellicherry
    from India
Sarawak from Malaysia
Lampong from Indonesia
AB: Well, tell me something. What happens if you harvest them when they're completely ripe?
 SP: Oh, well, if you remove the skin, then you're left with the lonely heart of the fruit, known as ...
 AB: Oh, oh, I know this one. Right there, white peppercorns.
 SP: Yes, very good. High marks for you. The white peppercorn. It's not as fragrant or as flavorful as its fully dressed cousins; however, its pale countenance is a quite good complement to a light-colored dish.

White Peppercorns

AB: Okay, what about these guys? What about green peppercorns?
SP: Well, green peppercorns are just like black peppercorns, although they're pickled in a brine before they are bottled or dried. Now they're not as fragrant as the white or black peppercorn, I should say. And then we have the pink peppercorns.

Green Peppercorns

AB: Wait a second. I read about those. Those aren't really Piper nigrum at all. Those are just berries from a South American plant, called ...
SP: Yes, yes, indeed ...
AB: Um ...
SP: Schinus terebinthifolius.
AB: That one, that one. So they're not real at all.

Pink Peppercorns
Schinus terebinthifolius

SP: Well, I can't pull anything over on you, Sir. You, you've got me at a disadvantage. Look here, try this. [puts a peppercorn into AB's mouth]
AB: But you just told me ...
SP: What do you think about that, eh? That's called the Szechuan peppercorn. Now, not a pepper proper. It is actually the dried berry of the prickly ash, Zanthoxylum simulans. It has a peppery citrus smell, and the taste is rather tangy, isn't it, rather, yes?

Zanthoxylum simulans

AB: Mah tongue ith numb.
SP: Your tongue is numb, isn't it?
AB: I can't ...
SP: You can't correct me anymore.
AB:  ... feel anything.
SP: Oh, no, don't worry, good Sir, don't worry, no. That numbing sensation that you're feeling is actually caused by hydroxy-alpha-sanshool, which is all the current rage amongst the anesthesiology research set, yes.
AB: Really, well, not the cooks. Well, I've got to go put some money in the meter. Do you think it'll take peppercorns?
SP: Peppercorns?
AB: Uh huh.
SP: In the meter? Well, not if Rita's working. She's quite a stickler, yes. But you know her sisters?
AB: Ah, know her sisters, yes.
SP: Now, that's another story, yes. One is quite a lovely lady. Wait, where are you going? I was going to tell you about my exploits, yes.

The Kitchen

    Now, upon examining the black peppercorn, you will no doubt notice that there is a ...  well, you can see the ...  no, you can't see anything. What we need is a really big peppercorn. [camera pans out to show a large model of a peppercorn] Yeah, like that.
    Now when the pepper fruit is allowed to ferment and is then dried, the outer skin wrinkles, oxidizes, and turns black. That is a sign that it has captured a wide range of aromatic compounds called terpines. And they kind of give the overall spice a kind of a woodsy, citrusy, cologney kind of thing. Now if we breach the fruit, by either cracking it or grinding it ... [with a mighty blow of a hammer and chisel, he heaves it in two] ... Wow ... we release a volatile oil, called piperine in the process. Now when combined, the piperine and the various terpines on the surface come together to give pepper its pleasantly pungent flavor.
    Now piperine is a member of the vanilloid family, but unlike its fiery chili pepper cousin, capsaicin, piperine leaves only a faint aftertaste on the tongue. It does, however, stimulate taste buds, increasing the flow of saliva and gastric juices; thus, it improves digestion. Fortunately for the cook, the essential oils involved here are not only tasty and aromatic, they are soluble in many different substances, which is just another way of saying, they're good at flavoring things.

True "Red" peppercorns can be processed from the fruits of Piper nigrum,
but because of time and expense they are not widely available.

The History of Black Pepper, Part II

    Sick and tired of buying overpriced peppercorns from the Venetian cartel, the Portuguese crown sends Vasco da Gama to find a sea route to India in 1494.

Cape of Good Hope

    Now eventually he works his way around the Cape [of Good Hope] and into the Indian Ocean, and within a decade, the Portuguese were the new kings of spice.

November 1, 1494
King Smiles For First Time in Months!

    Later, the Dutch and the English would overturn that monopoly. Now by the end of the 18th century, most European pepper was run through Salem, Massachusetts, whose speedy Clipper ships made thousands of runs to pepper ports along the island of Sumatra, making pepper affordable to all.

Salem Pepper Company
Daily Deliveries from Sumatra

Salem Pepper Company
Affordable Peppercorns
for All!

The Kitchen

    I think that it could be argued that one of the biggest trends in alky-hol in the last few years has been the trend towards flavored spirits. And one of the spirits most often flavored is, of course, vodka. Now this is a lucky thing if you like pepper vodka, because pepper—black pepper—is full of alcohol-soluble flavorants. So that means that you don't have to go out and buy yourself a bottle of pepper vodka. You can make your own. And vodka is really perfect for this kind of treatment, because, let's face it, it doesn't have much flavor of its own.

    We will require the services of two tablespoons of black peppercorns. As is true of any spice, pungency is protected by purchasing whole peppercorns, which we will breach only at the last minute before use.

2 Tbs. Black Peppercorns

    Now speaking of breaching, we just want cracked peppercorns here, so we will employ a mortar and pestle, thusly. [demonstrating] Yeah, this will be done in no time. This will just ... this is ... This is going to take forever. What we need is some percussion. We need a ...  [pulls out a mallet from a drawer] Yeah, that's what I'm talking about. [bangs on end of mortar will mallet] Ahh, now I believe that that is what I would call pleasantly cracked. And as for the aroma ...  A ww, you can't smell that, can you? I'm sorry.

    Grab yourself a funnel, approach your 750 milliliter bottle of vodka, and apply the fruit thusly. There. Some of it's going to sink, some of it's going to float; that's fine. Give it a good shake. And then, give it a shake, once a day, every other day, for seven days—if that makes sense—and you will have yourself a perfectly decent bottle of peppered vodka. 750 ml Bottle of Vodka

     As you can see, we've had a lot of infusion from the berries up into the alcohol. And believe it or not, it all happened in just seven days. [AB notices he's wearing the same shirt from "seven days ago"] Oh, well, it's my favorite shirt. I washed it.
    Anyway, time to strain. And I've just got a wire mesh strainer with a piece of cheesecloth, should do the trick. Be sure to give the bottle a good shake to make sure everything is loose and nothing sticks. And into the strainer it goes. There we go. Now, our nice shiny clean vodka goes right back in the bottle.
    Peppered vodka, obviously, can be used for many a cocktail. But I'd have to say, the Bloody Mary is probably its peak application.
    [AB is sitting behind a selection of pepper mills] Although I suspect that a controlled sonic pulse system is the key to perfect pepper grinding, almost every pepper mill currently on the planet is based upon a design introduced in 1874 by Jean-Pierre and Jean-Fredrique Peugeot, who, at the time, were best known for manufacturing hand saws, of all things. Now their design featured a wooden tube, which fed the pepper into a rotary mill composed of a grooved male head, and a grooved female ring. Although steel has long been the norm, ceramic mechanisms, which are quieter, and I think more precise, are now coming onto the scene. Another new development, some mills are replacing the classic drive shaft with a mill housing, that allows the entire container to be turned.
    Now regardless of the model, there are a few things that you want to keep in mind when mill shopping. One, it has got to be easy to load. If the refill slot isn't much bigger than a peppercorn, it's useless. You want a high capacity because you don't want to be refilling it every week. The grind has to be consistent. If upon testing you notice that there are big old chunkies mixed in with, you know, pepper powder, you need to keep looking.
    Another thing you might want to look for, indexed grind settings. As you can see here, there are pre-settings for everything from very, very fine to very very coarse. That can be nice and convenient. Now let's see. What did I leave ... Oh, one-handed electric mills. You know, this is a very,  very good concept, but I have never seen it executed properly. Of course, I am working on a little something of my own. [shows a pepper mill attached to the bit housing of a cordless drill] Ha ha ha ha ha. Take that! Yeah, baby! Now, all I have to do is think of an application that calls for this kind of firepower. Of course, what about crockpot pepperpot pork chops? Yeah. Of course, like all pork applications, it begins with a brine.

    Step one: you want to bring two cups of vegetable broth to a boil. And I do this in my electric kettle, because it's nice and fast and easy and it turns itself off when it reaches a boil, which I like. Now, time to add the actual brine ingredients. We have two tablespoons of black peppercorns, just slightly crushed, half a cup of light brown sugar. You could use dark if you wanted to. I like light for this. And half a cup of kosher salt. That gives us everything we really need for the brine, so stir until you're certain that everything is melted, and then add one pound of ice. There, that'll cool things down nicely, because we certainly wouldn't want to add meat to a hot brine. That would be a bad thing. 2 Cups Vegetable Broth

2 Tbs. Black Peppercorns,
    Slightly Crushed
1/2 Cup Light Brown Sugar
1/2 Cup Kosher Salt

1 Pound Ice

    Once that is cooled down, we bring forth the pork. We've got four inch-and-a-half thick pork chops, bone-in, which, as far as I'm concerned, is the only way to eat them. Plop that bag—that's a freezer bag, by the way—into some kind of water-tight receptacle, and go ahead and pour in the brine. Some of the ice is not going to be melted yet, and that is fine. Just seal it up and deposit into your refrigerator for at least eight hours. Overnight would be even better. 4 (1-1½ Inch) Pork Chops

Piper longum or "Long pepper" was popular in Ancient Rome.
Unlike Piper nigrum it can be grated rather than ground.

The Kitchen

GUEST: The Snozz

    Eight hours has passed, so we retrieve our pork chops. Actually, I would say that it's overnight, but hey, I'm wearing the same shirt, and that would be kind of creepy.
    First thing we've got to do is get off the excess brine, so give them a quick rinse in cold water, and I just do that over a cooling rack, and then swab them down with paper towels, so the surface is as dry as possible.

    Transfer your bone-dry chops to a lightly-lubed large sauté pan, over medium-high heat. Now a slow cooker will be dosing out a majority of the heat for this dish, but we also need the complex flavors that only high heat can deliver. Now crowding the pan is a bad thing, and I have to say that, if the fit here was any tighter, I would have to work in batches, but I think we're okay. In five or six minutes, if you don't go fiddling with the food, we will have a nice brown crust. 1½ Tbs. Olive Oil

    And now, we flip, we rearrange, and we cook another five to six minutes.

    Okay, everybody out of the pool and back on to the rack. There. We're going to add just a touch more oil, and then introduce one large julienned onion. That's an onion that's been cut both radially and longitudinally. It's a good cut to learn. Sauté until golden brown and delicious. Three to four minutes. 1 Large Onion, Julienned
While that is cooking, drop three ounces of dried apple slices into the bottom of a large slow cooker. Now you could use a Dutch oven for this, but I really do think that an electric slow cooker is the perfect device. And just pile on the pork chops, slap on the cover, and cook on high for one hour and thirty minutes. 3 Ounces Dried Apple Slices
    Then we stir in spices: one tablespoon of coarsely-ground black pepper, and one teaspoon of dried thyme. There. 1 Tbs. Coarsely Ground
    Black Pepper
1 tsp. Dried Thyme
    Finally, we deglaze with one and a half cups of chicken broth or stock. Be sure to scrub around in the pan to loosen all that goodness on the bottom. There. Now we move that directly into the crockpot, where the cooking is already in progress. 1½ Cups Chicken Broth

    [AB is reading, Black Pepper: In The Time of Pirates]
    [after about an hour and a half] Times up, but the cooking is not. We're going to go for low heat and cook for another four hours and thirty minutes. Your patience will be rewarded, of course.
    Slow Cooker Pepperpot Pork Chops. The pepper is singing lead, and the tune is sweet, not harsh or overbearing. This application also works equally well with beef, spareribs, and lamb shanks.

AB: [is looking up a large model of a nose talking to it] Oh yeah, I see it. How did you get a yard dart up there? That's ...

    Oh, hi. Um, my favorite facial feature has dropped by to point out the fact that a great deal of the pleasure that we extract from live pepper is indeed sensed by the snozz. All of that aroma means volatile chemicals that are mostly carried by the essential oils of the plant. Now, a great many plants have essential oils and they can be extracted either by being distilled or being cold-pressed out of the seed itself. Most of the essential oils out there are used for things like aromatherapy and massage and stuff like that, but a few of them actually do have culinary purposes, and black pepper is one of them. Now the real power here is that you can use this in a dish where you wouldn't really want little bits and pieces of pepper, like, for instance, I don't know, a sorbet. [holds a bottle of essential oil up to the nose]

AB: That's pretty good, isn't it?
THE SNOZZ: [nods]

     I can't think of any fruit that is better matched with pepper than mango, because it's got that kind of turpentiney thing going. So, four large mangoes—that's two and a half to three pounds—gets puréed in the food processor. 2½-3 Pounds Ripe Mango
    Now, 12 ounces by weight of sugar, a quarter of a cup of fresh-squeezed lime juice, a quarter of a cup of our peppered vodka. I told you it would come in handy. Besides supporting the peppery goodness of the sorbet, the alcohol will help to keep the texture fine, by maintaining small ice crystals. 12 Ounces Sugar
¼ Cup Freshly Squeezed
    Lime Juice
¼ Cup Pepper Vodka
    Now as for the [black pepper essential] oil—so small, I keep it in my pocket—we only need a little bitty quarter of a teaspoon. There we go. And we process again. ¼ tsp. Black Pepper
    Essential Oil

    Even when it's been puréed, mango has a good bit of fiber, and so you're going to want to strain that either through just a fine mesh strainer or a sieve of some type. Now it's going to take a little time. But believe me, the final texture will be worth it. Once strained, you're going to want to refrigerate that for two to three hours before churning.

Cubeb peppercorns from Indonesia are prized for their allspice-like overtones.

The Kitchen

    Time to churn. I prefer just to use a standard countertop model with the core that is frozen in the freezer overnight. Always turn the machine on before adding the mixture, because it could freeze against the side so quickly that it can bind up the dasher. That's that plastic thing.
    Now once your ice cream is churned—[time lapse] and it will take a little longer than that—we're ready to get that into the freezer to harden. First, we've got to clean off this beater. It's hard to do, but it's worth ...  Hey, that chicken just moved! [the camera pans away, as if distracted, then returns, the dasher is clean.] No, my mistake. Now let's get this into another container. Oh, I know, it looks delicious now, but believe me, once this hardens in the freezer for a few hours, it'll be even better.
    Yes, this really does taste as good as it looks. But hey, I can understand if some of you are a little leery about putting pepper front and center in a frozen dessert. You want something a little more familiar? Fine. You know, the flavors in pepper come mostly in the form of oils. Oils love getting together with other forms of fat, such as those found in egg yolks. Which of course, you would use to make the deviled eggs. The term of deviling eggs comes from 18th century England where the word "deviled" really meant anything that was stuffed with a spicy filling.

    We, of course, will require the services of six hard-cooked eggs. We'll also need some peppers. Half a teaspoon each of green peppercorns, white peppercorns, pink peppercorns, and black peppercorns, all in their dry state. Now I keep a coffee grinder around, just for grinding spices, and this is definitely a good tool for this application. There, nice grind. ½ tsp. Green Peppercorns
½ tsp. White Peppercorns
½ tsp. Pink Peppercorns
½ tsp. Black Peppercorns
    Now here we have the yolks; the six egg yolks. To that, we will add the pepper mix, and some salt, to the tune of a quarter of a teaspoon, just a little pinch of white sugar. Just a little bit, and half a teaspoon of the liquid from a bottle of brined green peppercorns, or capers would be fine also. A quarter cup of mayonnaise. Makes everything good, don't you know, and last, but not least, one teaspoon of mustard. Dijon, if you don't mind. Just going to eyeball this. There. 6 Hard-Boiled Egg Yolks
¼ tsp. Kosher Salt
Pinch of Sugar
½ tsp. Caper Liquid
¼ Cup Mayonnaise
1 tsp. Dijon Mustard

    Now just use a fork, and mash it up. You want it pipe-able, but you don't want it to be too smooth, so you don't want to do this in a food processor. Now I put that into a zip-top bag, fitted with a little star piping tip, and just slowly squeeze into the eggs. There. Take your time with this, or the bag will bust. Perfect.
    Sprinkle on a little freshly-crushed pink peppercorn, and refrigerate an hour before serving.

SP: You do recall pink peppercorns aren't really peppercorns at all.
AB: [in an affected British accent] Yes, I do remember that perfectly clear ...
AB:  ... but gosh darn it, they taste peppery, and ...
SP: They do.
AB:  ... they're pretty. [offers Sergeant Pepper a sample] Hey, how have things been going?
SP: Oh, I'm getting better all the time. I've been promoted.
AB: Really!
SP: Um hmm.
AB: Excellent.

    Well, I hope the last half hour has convinced you to give pepper a promotion in your kitchen. Sure, a grind or two can elevate a Caesar salad or a bowl of breakfast cereal. But to relegate pepper to a supporting flavor is to deny it its proper place, on the throne of the king of spices. See you next time, on "Good Eats".

AB: You have a daughter named Lucy, don't you?
SP: I do indeed.

Transcribed by Michael Roberts
Proofread by Michael Menninger

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Last Edited on 08/27/2010