Back to the spice rack – after getting to know the most common herbs, let’s meet a few more common spices in detail.
Pepper may refer to several different things, including chili peppers, bell peppers or Gwyneth Paltrow, but the spice is actually the dried fruit of the vine Piper nigrum. The pepper plant is native to India, and is extensively cultivated throughout most tropical countries. The biggest producer is Vietnam, yielding about 34% – just over a third – of the world’s pepper crop.
Pepper’s spicy heat is contained in the
compound piperine, which, as strong as it is, is only one hundredth of the heat of the flavor compound of chilies, capsaicin. This compound is also quite sensitive, as it can evaporate easily, and exposure to light may reduce it to a nearly tasteless form. Hence it is important to keep your pepper in an airtight container, preferably away from light. Of course, you don’t need to wrap your pepper shaker in a black tarp – these reactions take quite a while, and chances are you will use all the pepper in the shaker before you would notice anything; however, do keep your extra supplies well airtight and dark.
In cooking, there are three common varieties of peppers: black, white and green. Pink or rose pepper looks and tastes similar to them, but is the dried fruit of a completely different plant, the Peruvian or Brazilian pepper tree (Schinus molle and Schinus terebinthifolius, respectively).
Black pepper is the most common form of pepper – the one found in pepper shakers and pepper packets all around the world. Black pepper is made from the unripe, green fruits of the pepper vine. Altough it actually contains less piperine than white pepper, black pepper is spicier. The reason for that is in the preparation process: upon making black pepper, the flesh of the pepper fruits (called drupes) is left on the seeds; the whole fruit is briefly cooked, both to clean them and to help the enzymes during drying. Then the drupes are dried in the sun or in a machine for days. The pepper’s flesh shrinks to a thin, wrinkled layer around the seed – that’s what we call peppercorns. The dried flesh contains several other spicy compounds that help form the flavor of black pepper. Green pepper is very similar to black pepper: it’s also made from unripe drupes, however, it’s preserved in a way that helps retain the green color: sulphur dioxide treatment, canning and freeze-drying are such methods. Pickled peppercorns are green peppercorns preserved in brine or vinegar. Asian cuisine uses fresh green pepper drupes, too – this is mostly unknown in the West, as these unpreserved peppers decay very quickly, making them unsuitable for shipping.
White pepper, on the other hand, is made from fully ripened fruits and has the flesh removed before drying. This is usually done by soaking the drupes in water to help the flesh decompose. After a week of soaking, the rest of the fruit is rubbed off, leaving nothing but the naked seed to be dried. White pepper has a more mellow flavor than black pepper, and has the advantage of being off-white. This latter characteristic makes white pepper to be especially well suited for light-colored sauces and foods like mashed potatoes, where black pepper would stand out too much, making the food look “dirty”.
The darkness of the meat and the color of the pepper used is also commonly tied together. As a general rule of thumb, the whiter the meat you use, the more white pepper you should use in spicing it. For example, I use only white pepper on chicken, a mixture of the two on pork, and only black pepper for beef. Whole peppercorns preserve their flavor better than ground pepper, and that’s why freshly ground pepper from pepper mills is more potent. Fill your pepper mill with a mixture of black and white peppercorns for a real flavor treat.
Black pepper is also beneficial for your health. It contains several antioxidants, and the consumption of black pepper increases the absorption of several minerals and vitamins, like selenium, vitamin B and beta-carotene, which your body can transform into vitamin A. It also accelerates the energy metabolism, and helps the production of serotonine and beta-endorphin – the compounds responsible for happiness and feeling good! However, since its active compound, piperine can irritate the intestines, pepper has to be removed from the diet of patients having abdominal surgery or ulcers.
Chili powder is essentially ground dried chili peppers (Capsicum annuum), however, the term may describe two things. “Chili”, “chile” or “chili powder” is used for the ground peppers; most commonly red chilies or cayenne peppers are used. Chili powder blend, on the other hand, contains a handful of other ingredients like pepper, garlic powder, salt, nutmeg, mace, oregano or cumin among others. This latter blend is commonly used in Tex-Mex cuisine, being the fundamental spicing for chili con carne. The first such spice mix dates all the way back to the 1890’s.
The active compound of chilies is capsaicin – the same compound used in topical analgesic creams and in self-defense pepper sprays. The two uses seem fundamentally different, but the way they work is much the same. Rubbed into the skin with the cream, capsaicin stimulates blood flow to your painful muscles, soothing and loosening them. Rubbed into the sensitive surface of the eyes or into the mucous membrane of the nose or mouth, the extra blood flow creates a painful, burning sensation that can deter the attacker. Birds, however, have a highly increased tolerance to capsaicin, which is why you can safely mix chili into bird seeds to keep mammals like ferrets, weasels or foxes away from your feathered friends.
Chili can be used in a wide variety of foods other than Tex-Mex or Mexican cuisine. Add just a little to fish or stews for a bit of an extra piquant, or spice up a cup of hot chocolate with a bit of chili. Other major cuisines that use chili include Nigerian, Chinese, Italian and Hungarian. The popular Chinese dish, Kung Pao (or Gong Bao) chicken uses chilies in a peculiar way: the chilies are fried in the oil which is later used for frying the chicken. Hence the oil retains the capsaicin and the flavor, and passes it on to the meat. In Hungarian cuisine, chilies are commonly used to flavor soups, including chicken or beef broth – chili paste is commonly served on the side for those who like a little extra kick to their soup.
Paprika is very similar to chili, since it’s made from the same plant, Capsicum annuum. However, different subspecies are used for the two spices, and hence their flavor is distinctly different. Paprika is also referred to as “red pepper”, especially in British English. Paprika is generally milder flavored, without the heat of chili, however, in Hungary and Spain, hot varieties are produced as well. Hungarian paprika is quite famous, especially the most exported “Noble Sweet” or “édes-nemes” variety. This type of paprika has a sweet quality and a mild pungency to it other than its bright, vivid red color – just see the picture above. Other than the noble sweet, Hungarian paprika comes in delicate (csípősmentes csemege, absolutely no heat), exquisite delicate (csemege, mild) pungent exquisite delicate (csípős csemege, mild to medium), half-sweet (félédes, a blend of mild and hot peppers) and strong (erős, pungent hot and dark brown in color) varieties. Spain’s speciality, Pimentón comes in different strengths, and is best described by its characteristic, distinct smoky flavor. This is achieved as the peppers are dried by smoking, usually over oak wood. This type of paprika compliments roasts especially well, bringing a little “outdoor” flavor into your kitchen.
And to add a recipe to the end…
Here’s an idea on how to make your own seasoning instead of the commercially available seasoning blends, which tend to be excessively salty and may contain MSG – monosodium glutamate, an artificial flavor enhancer that has raised several health concerns over the years. While these concerns have mostly been found to be anecdotal, this flavoring brings a lot of excessive sodium to your diet, that is proven to be responsible for high blood pressure and heart conditions.
In my blend, I used some Kosher salt, lots of paprika and garlic powder, some nutmeg, dried parsley, chili powder, black and white pepper and some oregano. I’m never exactly sure how much of each is in the blend, as I keep replenishing it before I actually run out, hence the contents fluctuate within a mostly consistent taste. Just mix all the spices in a tight-sealing box and shake them together vigorously until well blended. Taste the mixture, and adjust the flavors to your liking. I use this as a steak rub, mix it with barbeque sauce for ribs, flavor roasted potatoes with it, and pretty much just add a pinch to almost anything that needs some extra flavor. Experiment and make it your own!
As a reference, this is what mine looks like – though the latest blend became a little too salty for my taste.
Enjoy your meal!