White peppercorns and black peppercorns come from the same plant, but are processed differently. White peppercorns are allowed to fully ripen on the vine and are stripped of their dark shell after soaking. Their flavor is sharper, hotter, and less complex than black peppercorns. White pepper is the pepper of choice in many Asian cuisines including China, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. In classic Western and Indian cooking, white pepper is primarily used in light-colored dishes for aesthetic reasons.
To make white pepper the berries from the pepper vine (Piper nigrum) are picked when they are fully ripened and red. (In contrast black peppercorns are picked just when they are beginning to turn from green to yellow or pinkish.) The outer skin of fully mature red peppercorns is removed by process called retting. Retting consists of soaking the berries in water for one to two weeks until the shell loosens. The outer shell is then removed or rubbed off by various methods to reveal the cream-colored white seed. The white peppercorns are washed once again and sun-dried.
The Post Harvest Technology Centre at the University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore, developed the white peppercorn processing machine you see in the above photo in 2007. This unit mechanically processes white pepper from mature pepper berries that have undergone retting or soaking pre-treatment. The pre-treated pepper berries are fed into the unit through a hopper into a drum that has a water jet, four nylon brushes, and a double layered metallic sieve. This provides the abrasion necessary to remove the outer shell or pericarp of the retted berries. A 1.0 hp single phase electric motor powers the device and only two people are required to operate the machine. About 120-150 kg of pre-soaked pepper berries can be processed into white peppercorns in one hour.
White peppercorns have a sharper, hotter flavor than black peppercorns because the essential oils that provide most of the woodsy, lemony notes have been removed with the outer layer of the fruit. The flavor of white peppercorns comes primarily from the alkaloid molecule piperine. This gives white peppercorns a far less complex flavor profile than black peppercorns. I have read descriptions of the taste of white peppercorns as lemony, citrusy, earthy, wine-like, hot, sharp, and creamy. The flavor of white peppercorns always reminds me of clam chowder, gefilte fish, and sometimes even the Meyer lemons of my native California. The scent of uncooked white pepper has a distinctive and musty barnyard odor. You can practically smell the rotting hay and horse urine. I suppose that's earthy.
In both Western and Indian cuisines white peppercorns are often used in cream or light-colored sauces where black pepper would visibly stand out. The photo above is of a black pepper flecked sauce which apparently neither Westerners nor Indians can abide. Black flecks in a white sauce denote rusticity and we can't be having that in an ethereally pale French béchamel or hollandaise sauce. Mughlai dishes such as Safed Maas (white mutton) or Rezala Chicken cannot suffer the indignity of darks flecks lurking in their silvery yet sumptuous gravies either. In northern Europe white pepper outsells black 10 to 1. The Cajuns of Louisiana use it quite a bit in their highly spiced cuisine too. There's an old Cajun cooking saying "Black pepper is for the taste, white for the heat, and red for the bite." In China, Malaysia, and Thailand white pepper is used extensively. You can taste the sharp heat of white pepper prominently in the famous Chinese 'hot and sour' soup. I love the way the Chinese and Thai use white pepper paired with fresh ginger. Interestingly, the Chinese never cook white pepper but add it at the end of cooking a dish believing that it will get bitter if heated.
I'm pretty sure most of us have not sampled Penja white peppercorns but we probably have tasted the more mundane Indonesian varieties Sarawak and Muntok. These are what you'll commonly find at most grocery stores and spice shops worldwide. When buying white peppercorns it's best to buy them whole and grind them as needed. White peppercorns' flavor quickly dissipates after grinding just like black peppercorns. Store them away from direct sunlight in an airtight container and they should be good for about a year. I'm really not that fond of the flavor of white pepper except for in fish or seafood dishes. Perhaps I should try adding it at the end of cooking like the Chinese do? I've never found white pepper to develop a bitter taste with cooking. I have found you do have to be careful how much you use though, a little too much and it's sharpness will easily take over an entire dish. White pepper does NOT mellow out with cooking as black pepper does.
|The only way I've seen white pepper sold in India: powdered.|