There are peppercorns and there are chili peppers and it can be confusing to know what to use when! Here's a guide to help clear things up.
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How Do I Know What Pepper to Use When?

Pepper is such a ubiquitous spice in cooking and eating but it's often the afterthought as a table condiment or thought of as something we use just because we are supposed to. Beyond black pepper, understanding which pepper to use can be confusing. We spoke with Ethan Frisch, co-founder of spice purveyor Burlap & Barrel, about all things pepper to help us understand what we should be using when.

What is Pepper?

Right from the get-go, pepper is a confusing ingredient because we use pepper as a category for both spices that come from the plant piper negrum (peppercorns) and also spices that come from capsicums (bell or hot peppers). Something like black pepper is from that peppercorn whereas cayenne, Aleppo, Urfa, are forms of chili pepper. It's a very confusing thing that dates all the way back to Christopher Columbus and the spice trade. You'll sometimes now see the latter referred to simply as chilis.

Peppercorns

Black pepper comes from a flowering vine. The peppercorns are removed and dried to create the black peppercorns that we find in our grinder. All black pepper comes from the same species, but like wine, it has differences based on where it's grown (or its terroir) with most of it coming from Vietnam, India, and Indonesia. A lot of the black peppercorns you find in stores are a blend of a few different places, but many spice purveyors like Burlap and Barrel carry peppercorns from distinct regions and particular farmers.

White pepper comes from the same plant but is processed differently. With white pepper, you are taking off the skin and you are left with the white pit. Typically, the pit is soaked in water and the natural sugars will cause a fermentation process.

Less common are green peppercorns, which you sometimes see in blends. These are underripe peppercorns that are freeze-dried to retain their color and "give off a slightly herbal note," says Frisch, "farmers aren't doing much with these."

Then you have the red/purple peppercorns, which are vine-ripened and rare to see. What you'll more often see in blends is the pink peppercorn, which, to make things more confusing, is not actually from the same plant even. It often lands in blends for color. The prized purple peppercorns can give off more of a complex, fruity flavor with a sharper kick. You'll generally only find those at specialized spice shops.

And then we also have Szechuan peppercorns, which pack a punch but are actually seed husks from a different plant and not peppercorns at all!

When to Use Black Pepper

In terms of peppercorns, you'll most often default to black pepper for basic cooking and seasoning. You'll always want to freshly grind your pepper (as Frisch notes, pre-ground pepper is usually older and lower quality). Black pepper is fat-soluble, so it'll produce great flavor if you add it into your cooking oils and is quite aromatic when you use it early on when sautéing things like onions, or your mirepoix.

Dishes like cacio e pepe put pepper at the forefront as a spice.

Pepper is also a great addition at the end of cooking (which is why you see it so commonly paired with salt). "Most high-quality peppers like Zanzibar black peppercorns from Burlap & Barrel will really give you fruity, citrusy and floral notes," says Frisch. Again, just make sure to grind them fresh.

When to Use White Pepper

White pepper as we know it tastes pretty similar to black pepper. Chefs occasionally will use it just so there is no appearance of black flakes in the food in dishes like cream sauces. What we are used to on grocery store shelves doesn't taste a whole lot different than black pepper.

However, in many Asian countries white pepper is actually fermented for longer periods of time resulting in a spice that brings "a cheesy umami flavor" White pepper like that will often be found in Asian grocery stores or specialty spice purveyors. Experiment with this kind of white pepper in dishes like congee or even try it in stir-fry.

Capsicums

These peppers boast a bigger variety because they come from different species that are grown all over the world. Some of the more common are cayenne pepper, red pepper flakes, and paprika. With a wider variety of spices becoming more readily available through online retail, we are seeing a rise in popularity in the U.S. for spices like Urfa and Aleppo pepper as well.

When to Use Chili Peppers

The variety of chili peppers is so vast, and can be as mild as paprika or bring the heat like cayenne. You'll see many of them blended together to make chili or as a rub or to add heat to vegetables. Depending on the type of spice you are looking for, this is where you'll get creative. A nice kick comes from red pepper flakes, often added to pizza or pasta. Urfa pepper, a Turkish chili pepper, has more of a deep smoky taste. It can be used while cooking or as a finisher, just like you would use black pepper. Aleppo pepper (and Aleppo-style peppers like Marash) is also a common pepper used in Middle Eastern cuisine to season meats and vegetables and some dips.

With so many different varieties it's worth experimenting by interchanging them on vegetables, meats, or even in sauces or dips.

Peppercorns and chili peppers have very different flavor profiles but they both add a depth of flavor to food whether in the cooking process, or in some cases as a finisher. Have fun with spices – you never know what you may discover.