A guide to black pepper, one of the most popular and widely used spices in the world.

black papper
Black pepper is probably the most important and popular spice in the whole world. It is added to almost every savoury dish, hot or cold, imparting a sharp and pungent flavour.

Native to southern India, black pepper sparked the start of the spice trade between Asia and Europe and the need for this valuable spice prompted European explorers to travel and trade all over the world.

Black pepper or black peppercorns are obtained from the pepper plant. This plant grows in tropical areas such as India and Southeast Asia to a height of several metres.
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The pepper plant

The pepper plant is allowed to grow for a minimum of three years during which time small flowers form, which then develop into berries.

The berries are subsequently picked or harvested, whilst they are still green in colour and unripe, and then dried until they shrivel and turn dark brown or black in colour. The end result is what is known as the peppercorn.

The history of black pepper

Black pepper has a history of at least 4000 years. It is indigenous to India and gradually began to make its way eastwards to Southeast Asia where it is now also cultivated and grown. Some of the major producers of black pepper nowadays are India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Brazil, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and China.

Pepper was so valuable for a number of reasons, one of them being its ability to disguise food that was not as fresh as it should have been. It was also used to liven up and give a kick to dishes that were somewhat tasteless and not very appetizing otherwise.

For these reasons and more pepper was not only used as a spice and seasoning for food, it was also a used as a method of payment in exchange for other goods and even to pay taxes, dowries and even rent.

In ancient Greece, pepper was offered to the gods in sacred rituals and was even swapped for gold. Fortunately, nowadays pepper is not that expensive.

The health benefits of black pepper

Black pepper is known to treat and help a number of ailments. The essential oil of black pepper is often added to massage blends and applied to aching or painful joints and muscles, whether the pain is sports related or through arthritic or rheumatic pain.

Black pepper also plays a major role in the metabolism and the digestion of food and it can help to settle the stomach and relieve gas.

Below are other healing qualities that black pepper is known or reputed to have:
  • Black pepper induces sweating, which consequently cools down the body and relieves feverish symptoms.
  • Black pepper is useful for those with poor circulation.
  • It is said to promote mental clarity, which is useful when studying.
  • It can help clear up colds, viral infections and flu when prepared in a tea.
  • Black pepper helps to prevent gas and flatulence.
  • It induces urination, which is good when the kidneys are not functioning properly.
  • Black pepper is a powerful anti-oxidant.
  • It is antibacterial, which was useful for meat preservation before the time of refrigerators.
  • Black pepper helps to break down and digest fats and meat proteins much more easily, as it induces the production of saliva and gastric juices needed for digestion in the stomach.
  • Black pepper is a good source of manganese and iron, which are important for the body to function correctly.
  • Components of black pepper are often added to mouthwashes and gargles used to treat sore throats.
  • Black pepper is a stimulant that can stimulate various parts of the body such as the heart, kidneys, circulation and the stomach.
  • When foods are eaten with black pepper, the body is able to absorb valuable vitamins and nutrients from the food much easier.
  • Black pepper has been used to treat fatigue and tiredness.
  • It stimulates the appetite and has been used to treat anorexics and people with eating disorders.
  • A strong black pepper and mint tea will help clear chest and lung infections and bring up unwanted mucous and phlegm.

Buying and storing black pepper

Black pepper can be bought either as whole peppercorns or ground pepper. Ground black pepper is not as pungent or flavourful as freshly ground peppercorns and it does not keep for as long either.

One of the reasons why black peppercorns were so valuable centuries ago is because they can be stored for almost indefinitely without losing their quality, taste or aroma.

Dishes always taste better when freshly ground black pepper is added near the end of cooking time or just before serving.

Ideas for using black pepper in the kitchen

Black pepper can be added to almost any savoury dish imaginable but surprisingly, it can also be added to sweet biscuits and cakes in order to spice them up and add a quirky twist.

Here are some more ideas of how to use black pepper in your cooking:
  • Add to salad dressings with salt, olive oil and cider vinegar.
  • Add to omelettes, egg mayonnaise and other cheese and egg dishes.
  • Black pepper can be added to strawberries or pineapple.
  • It can be added to soups, stocks, sauces, marinades and stews.
  • Use to flavour homemade hamburgers, rissoles and sausages.
  • Use to rub onto meats, poultry and fish before roasting or cooking.
  • Use to make pepper sauce.
  • Add to biscuit mixtures for spicy sweet biscuits.
  • Season seafood with black pepper.
  • Add to mashed potato.
  • Use to flavour dips, salsas and cold sauces.
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Black Pepper Recipes

A number of recipes that use black pepper as one of the main ingredients. Includes recipes for salmon, chicken and steak.

Chinese-Style Black Pepper Steak

This is a highly seasoned and flavoursome dish that can be prepared in minutes. Serve with rice, noodles or stir-fried vegetables.

Ingredients
  • 1½ lb (680 g) of fillet steak
  • 2 onions
  • 2 tbsp of dry sherry
  • 1 - 2 tbsp of whole black peppercorns
  • 1 tbsp of dark soy sauce
  • 1 tbsp of sunflower oil
  • 3-inch piece of fresh root ginger
  • 2 tsp of sugar
  • ½ tsp of sesame oil
Method
  1. First of all the meat needs to be cut into very thin slices. This is best done with a sharp knife.
  2. Slice the onions into thin rings.
  3. Peel the ginger and then grate it finely.
  4. Place the sliced steak and onions with the ginger into a large bowl or dish.
  5. In a separate small bowl mix together the dry sherry, soy sauce, sugar and sesame oil.
  6. Pour this mixture over the meat and onions and mix well so that everything is coated with the marinade sauce.
  7. Cover the dish or bowl with cling film and place into the refrigerator for a minimum of 2 hours.
  8. Place the peppercorns into a plastic bag and crush with a rolling pin or something heavy. If you have a pestle and mortar, even better.
  9. Remove the meat dish from the fridge and stir in the crushed peppercorns.
  10. Heat the tbsp of sunflower oil in a large wok and once the oil is hot, add the steak and onions.
  11. Stir-fry until the steak is cooked to your preference.
  12. Remove from the wok and serve with stir-fried vegetables, rice or noodles.

Black Pepper Chicken

The chicken breast pieces are marinated in ginger, pepper and garlic, stir-fried, cooked with chillies and lemon juice and finally garnished with coriander.

Ingredients
  • 4 - 6 chicken breasts
  • 7 fl oz (200 ml) of boiling water
  • 2 fresh green chillies
  • 1 finely chopped onion
  • 1 oz (30 g) of chopped coriander
  • 2 crushed cloves of garlic
  • 2 tbsp of vegetable oil
  • 1 tbsp of olive oil
  • 1 tsp of lemon juice
  • 1 tsp of freshly grated ginger
  • 1 tsp of ground black pepper
  • 1 tsp of ground white pepper
  • salt
Method
  1. Cut the chicken breasts into bite-size pieces and set aside in a bowl.
  2. Mix together the garlic, ginger, black pepper, white pepper, pinch of salt and the olive oil.
  3. Add to the chicken pieces and mix well, making sure that each piece of chicken is coated with some of the garlic mixture.
  4. Cover the bowl with cling film and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
  5. Heat the vegetable oil in a large wok or frying pan, add the chopped onion and fry for 3 minutes.
  6. Add the chicken pieces and stir-fry for about 10 minutes until the chicken has browned and cooked through.
  7. Cut the green chillies in half lengthways and add to the wok together with the boiling water.
  8. Make sure that the water covers the chicken. Cover the pan, reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes.
  9. Remove from the heat and stir in the lemon juice.
  10. Serve the chicken and sprinkle with the chopped coriander.

Peppered Salmon

The salmon fillets are encrusted with black peppercorns and fried. Serve with a fresh green salad or a light sauce.

Ingredients
  • 4 salmon fillets (6 oz / 170 g each)
  • 2 tbsp of olive oil
  • 1 tbsp of whole black peppercorns
  • 1 tsp of sea salt
Method
  1. Wash the salmon under running cold water and pat dry with kitchen paper.
  2. Brush the salmon fillets with a little olive oil.
  3. Roughly crush the black peppercorns with a pestle and mortar or by placing them in a plastic bag and crushing them with a rolling pin or saucepan.
  4. Mix the pepper with the sea salt and brush onto the tops of the salmon fillets.
  5. Refrigerate and allow the flavours to infuse for about an hour.
  6. Heat the remainder of the olive oil in a frying pan and add the salmon fillets once the oil is hot.
  7. Fry on both sides for about 3 minutes on each side.
  8. Remove from the heat and serve.

Pepper Biscuits

These peppery biscuits can seem a bit tricky to make, but they are well worth it.

Ingredients
  • 2 oz (55 g) of caster sugar
  • 1 oz (30 g) of plain flour
  • 1 oz (30 g) of unsalted butter
  • 1 egg white
  • ½ tsp of ground black pepper
  • vegetable oil
  • pinch of salt
Method
  1. Preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C).
  2. Grease a baking tray with a little of the vegetable oil.
  3. Melt the butter over a gentle heat and set aside.
  4. Whisk together the egg white, sugar and salt with an electric whisk.
  5. Stir in the flour, melted butter and the ground pepper and mix well until a smooth batter has formed.
  6. Take a heaped teaspoonful of the mixture and drop it onto the baking tray. Spread the out so that it forms a circle with a 4-inch diameter.
  7. Repeat with another teaspoonful of batter and situate alongside the first.
  8. Place into the oven and bake for 5 minutes or until the biscuits are golden at the sides.
  9. Remove from the oven and lift one of the biscuits and curl over a rolling pin and then do the same with the other.
  10. Leave the biscuits in position until they have set but in the meantime prepare the next set of biscuits and place in the oven to bake.
  11. Repeat until all the mixture has been used up and all of the biscuits have set and cooled.
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