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A Peppercorn Guide – Types, Colors, Uses, Origins, and More

Almost every kitchen in the U.S., if not the world, has ground or whole black pepper ready to spice up any dish. But did you know there are more types of pepper than just black? That is right, peppercorns come in a variety of different colors ranging from black to white and even pink.

This post is a comprehensive guide on the various types of peppercorns, providing you with all the information you could ever need.

What are peppercorns?

Peppercorns are originally from the state of Kerala in India. Peppercorns are berries, known as drupes, meaning a single seeded fruit. The most common peppercorn, which is black in color, is picked fresh from a vine while it is still green and then sun-dried, giving it its black coloration that you’re used to seeing when you purchase pepper in the stores.

Below is a table highlighting the different types of peppercorns, their origin, what they taste like, and which food they pair best with:

Peppercorn TypeOriginFlavorBest Food Pairing
BlackIndiaComplex, woody, pineyAlmost everything
GreenIndiaMild and can be brinySteak sauces and eggs
WhiteIndiaSimple and spicyWhite sauces, potatoes, French, and Asian cuisine
RedIndiaSlightly sweet, fruity, and mildly spicySauces
PinkPeru and BrazilSweet, floral, and citrusy with mild spiceLight sauces, beef, and fish

How did peppercorns get their name?

When looking at a peppercorn, you will notice it looks nothing like a piece of corn. It is not yellow in color, kernel in shape, and does not grow on a cobb. So, why is it called a peppercorn?

The term “corn” is an old English saying from around 700 A.D. At the time “corn” was used to describe something that is a hard particle or seed-like in texture and hardness. Adding “corn” to the end or beginning of a word was commonplace for hard small objects.

Examples of this include barleycorn, acorn, and of course peppercorn.

What is a whole peppercorn?

A whole peppercorn is the non-ground or crushed form of the peppercorn. Whole peppercorns are round in shape. Depending on the type of peppercorn, they can be hard, rough, and cratered in texture like black peppercorns or they can be smooth and softer like pink peppercorns.

What are the different peppercorn colors and types?

Peppercorns come in five distinct colors: black, green, white, red, and pink.

These five different types of peppercorns are each prized for their own unique flavor profile and are simply named after their colors:

  • Black peppercorns– Plant species Piper nigrum
  • Green peppercorns – Plant species Piper nigrum
  • White peppercorns – Plant species Piper nigrum
  • Red peppercorns – Plant species Piper nigrum
  • Pink peppercorns – Plant species Schinus mole

Technically, the pink peppercorn is not a true peppercorn, but is related to the cashew nut family; so, if you have a nut allergy do not eat them. It was grouped into the same culinary category as traditional peppercorns due to its mild peppery flavor and small round shape.

Where do peppercorns come from and where are they grown?

Most peppercorns originate from the southern Indian state of Kerala, which is known for its famous backwaters and beaches. The pink peppercorn is an exception and originates from Peru and Brazil.

Today, peppercorn varieties are grown worldwide in many countries. Below is a list of the countries where each type of peppercorn is grown. I have included production data as well where available.

Black peppercorns: 546,000 tons produced annually – Vietnam 40%, Indonesia 15%, India 10%, Brazil 10%, China 6%, and other 19%

Green peppercorns: Vietnam, Indonesia, India, Brazil, and China

White peppercorns: Vietnam, Indonesia, India, Brazil, and China

Red peppercorns: Vietnam, Indonesia, India, Brazil, and China

Pink peppercorns: Brazil, Madagascar, U.S.

Fun fact: black pepper and black peppercorns account for approximately 20 percent of the global spice trade!

Are all peppercorns the same?

Not all peppercorns are the same. As mentioned earlier, pink peppercorns are technically part of the cashew nut family. However, peppercorns that are black, green, white, and red are all from the same vine.

Even though all peppercorns excluding pink grow on the same vine they each have their own distinct flavor profile. The flavor differentiation is due to the fact each variety is harvested at different stages of the berry’s ripening and is processed differently.

Peppercorn TypeTime of HarvestLevel of Processing
BlackUnripe, the berry is still greenSun dried, causing the berry to blacken
GreenUnripe, the berry is still greenEither pickled, freeze-dried, or dehydrated
WhiteFully ripened, the berry is redBerry’s skin is removed, and the seed is dried
RedFully ripened, the berry is redFreeze-dried or dehydrated

Black peppercorns – The black peppercorn is the most popular type of peppercorn. It is the sun-dried version of the green peppercorn berry. The black color comes from the berry’s skin blackening when exposed to sunlight and heat.

Green peppercorns – The green peppercorn is the same unripe green peppercorn which is used when making black peppercorns. However, instead of laying out the green peppercorns to dry in the sun, the green peppercorns are either pickled in a vinegar brine, freeze-dried, or dehydrated

White peppercorns – White peppercorns come from the same plant and berry as the black and green peppercorns. However, the berry is given time to fully ripen on the vine and turn red. When the red berry is harvested, the flesh of the berry is removed leaving just the seed. The remaining seed is then dried out leaving a dry, white appearance which is what we know as white pepper.

Red peppercorns – Red peppercorns are the fully ripened form of the same berry used for white peppercorns. However, instead of the berry’s skin being removed, it is left on and the whole berry is dehydrated. This kind of peppercorn is rare because most fully ripened peppercorns are used to create white peppercorns as they are more popular.

Pink peppercorns – Technically, pink peppercorns are not “peppercorns”, they are berries like the traditional peppercorn but have a different origin and are from a different species of plant. Pink peppercorns grow on a pepper tree native to Peru and Brazil. They are from the same plant family as the cashew nut but up close they look like tiny red berries, instead of a nut. They are harvested when ripe and then dried.

How to use peppercorns

Peppercorns are used to enhance and complement the flavor of foods, either in their ground form or as whole peppercorns in broth making and brines.

The most common form of peppercorn is the ground form. You can buy ground pepper at the local supermarket. But I recommend buying whole peppercorns and then grinding them yourself with a peppermill or a mortar and pestle. Whole peppercorns stay fresh longer and have a bolder flavor than the pre-ground form.

Ground pepper is used to add a bit of complexity and spice to almost everything from steaks and chicken to eggs and potatoes. Almost any food can be enhanced with a few cracks of fresh pepper.

Pepper can be used before, during, or after the dish you whipped up is cooked or is cooking.

The flavor profile you are trying to create will dictate at which point in the cooking process you should add the pepper.

Peppercorns vs pepper

If you have never seen a peppercorn before you may be wondering what the difference is between a peppercorn and pepper. Almost everyone knows pepper as the fine granular stuff that is in a table shaker.

The most common item referred to as pepper is ground black pepper, which you will see next to the salt in almost every diner, restaurant, and household. The difference between ground black pepper and black peppercorn is its form. Ground black pepper is a black peppercorn which has been ground into a fine particle, dust-like consistency.

The ground form of pepper is easier to uniformly apply to food when compared to the cracked form, which are often bigger chunks of whole peppercorn.

What do peppercorns taste like?

Black peppercorns – Black peppercorn is known for its robust pungent flavor and aroma. Many describe it as a bit woody and piney in flavor.

Green peppercorns – Green peppercorn is much milder than its black peppercorn counterpart. Often green peppercorns are pickled in a briny liquid.

White peppercorns – White peppercorns have a one dimensional and less complex flavor than black peppercorns. White peppercorns are known to be spicier than black peppercorns.

Red peppercorns – Red peppercorns are extremely rare but if you get to taste one, you will experience slightly sweet and a bit fruity flavors with a pleasantly spicy aftertaste.

Pink peppercorns – Pink peppercorns have a sweet somewhat floral taste, some describe it as slightly citrusy.

Which type of peppercorn is best?

Now that you know more about peppercorns you may be asking, which type of peppercorn is best. Well the answer varies depending on what you are using it for and your flavor preferences. I recommend the Black Tellicherry peppercorn, grown in southern India, because it is bolder and spicier than normal black peppercorns. But it is cheaper than its fancier relative Kampot peppercorns, which are grown in Cambodia.

Which type of peppercorn is the hottest?

The spice that is present in peppercorns is different from chili peppers. The hottest peppercorn does not have the same capsaicin-based-burning-mouth-on-fire heat that a chili pepper has. Rather, peppercorns have a bold pungent flavor, full of spice and complexity. The hottest and spiciest peppercorn is a specific type of black peppercorn, the Tellicherry, which grows up and down the Malabar coast in India.

Which type of peppercorn has the strongest flavor?

Black peppercorns have the strongest flavor and aroma compared to green, white, red, and pink varieties. A little goes a long way when ground or whole. The strongest flavored black peppercorn as mentioned before is the Tellicherry black peppercorn.

What is the difference between white and black peppercorns?

Black and white peppercorns come from the same species of vine, but their processing is quite different. The different processing leads to different flavor profiles which can be used for different recipes.

White peppercorn vs black peppercorn processing

Black peppercorns are the sun-dried unripe green peppercorn berry. After the green peppercorn is left to dry in the sun, it shrivels and turns black in color. White peppercorns are made from the fully ripened red peppercorn. After the red peppercorn is harvest, the red flesh of the berry is removed, leaving the white seed. The remaining seed is then dried and results in white peppercorn.

White peppercorn vs black peppercorn flavor

Black peppercorns have a flavor often described as woody, piney, complex, and spicy. The white peppercorn has a simpler flavor profile, its taste is like the black peppercorn but less complex but spicier.

Black peppercorns tend to hold their flavor even after three to four years, whereas white peppercorns go stale sooner.

White peppercorn vs black peppercorn food pairings

Both ground white or black pepper go great on a lot of foods, but traditionally white peppercorns have been more common in Asian and French cuisines. Since white pepper is prized for its slightly spicier flavor it has been commonly used in Asian-style dishes.

In French cooking, white-based cream and butter sauces commonly use white pepper. White pepper is used over black not because of its flavor but for its color. White pepper will not leave black specs in the butter and cream sauces, and since fancy French cuisine has a large focus of appearance, using a pepper that blends in with the sauces is more desired.

Black pepper on the other hand works great on almost anything, that is why you will find it right next to the salt on almost any dining room table.

Can you cook with whole peppercorns?

Yes, you can cook with whole peppercorns. Whole peppercorns are commonly used in pickling, marinades, and broths. Many find biting into a whole peppercorn unpleasantly spicy and pungent, so it is best practice to remove the whole peppercorns before consuming whatever dish they were used in.

Can you eat whole peppercorns?

Yes, you can eat whole peppercorns. When eaten raw they will have a strong pungent flavor. Even when cooked, biting into a whole peppercorn can be an intense experience. A cooked peppercorn will be milder in taste and softer and less likely to crack your tooth when biting into it!

Which type of peppercorn is the most expensive?

The most expensive peppercorn is the Kampot peppercorn from the Kampot region of Cambodia.

Kampot peppercorns can come in black, green, white, or red varieties and are known for the superior flavor compared to peppercorns grown elsewhere in the world. I have seen four ounces of Kampot peppercorns selling for over $20 on Amazon.

Much like how certain sparkling wines, from a certain part of France, are named after the specific region they come from (Champagne), Kampot peppercorns have the same connotation. To be called a Kampot peppercorn, the peppercorn must be grown in the Kampot region of Cambodia. Otherwise, it will just be known as a peppercorn.

Because of their reputation and higher cost, Kampot peppercorns are often faked by unscrupulous sellers who relabel inferior peppercorns with the Kampot name.

So, do your due diligence before handing your money over to anyone saying they are selling authentic Kampot peppercorns.

Can you grow peppercorns at home?

You can grow peppercorns at home, but they grow best in specific climates. Peppercorn plants, Piper nigrum, do not tolerate cold or dry conditions. Kerala, the plant’s origin is known for its hot, humid, and wet climate. The plant cannot survive temperatures below 60 degrees Fahrenheit for extended periods of time. The plant needs lots of moisture and warm soil between 75 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit.

Climate zones that are best for growing peppercorns include plant Hardiness Zones 10 and 11 (A map created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to identify the best climates in which plants thrive). In the U.S. this will include select parts of Florida, Texas, Louisiana, Arizona, and California.

If you do not live in a 10 or 11 zone and want to grow peppercorns, you will need a climate controlled indoor environment like a greenhouse to replicate the ideal growing climate for the vine.

Do peppercorns go bad?

Peppercorns of all colors do not spoil if stored properly, however, they do lose their flavor over time. Whole peppercorns will hold their flavor for three to four years. Ground pepper will hold its flavor for about one to two years.

If you have whole peppercorns or ground pepper that goes beyond its best freshness date you will have to use greater quantities to get the same amount of flavor. I recommend you invest in a peppermill and always buy whole peppercorns. In my opinion, freshly ground pepper always tastes better and it does not take much work to grind it up.

Heck, you can buy a battery powered grinder if you want to make it as easy as pressing a button for freshly ground pepper.

What is the best way to store peppercorns?

The best way to store peppercorns is to put them in an airtight container and store them in your pantry. Many folks keep them near the oven for convenience but the best way to store spices including pepper is to put them in a place where the temperature does not fluctuate.

Do peppercorns dissolve?

Peppercorns do not dissolve when stored or cooked in liquids. However, they do soften, and the longer they cook the softer they get.

Do peppercorns need to be organic?

Peppercorns do not need to be organic, but if you are worried about pesticides in your food there is no harm in spending a few extra dollars to get the organic kind. Peppercorns do not typically experience pest infestations because they have natural properties that keep insects and pests away.

If a peppercorn does have pesticides on them it is generally from contamination of other plant goods being sprayed on a mixed farm. Since peppercorns are not typically sprayed with pesticides directly, the level of pesticides detected on peppercorns are less than other fresh forms of produce.