Peppercorns, whether they are black, green, red, or white, all come from the same plant species (Piperaceae Family). The different colors are due to the processing methods and the time they were harvested.
Each peppercorn consists of an outer shell, also known as a pericarp, that covers an inner seed. What makes the peppercorn hot is the amount of piperine that is contained in each seed. As shown in the figure above, the berries, or corns, grow in densely packed spikes. So, when these spikes are harvested not all the peppercorns are mature. Green peppercorns are less ripe than black or red peppercorns as they are more immature. They are considered mildly hot. To keep their color, often harvested green peppercorns are freeze dried. If left to dry on their own, the green peppercorns will turn black.
Black peppercorns are actually green peppercorns that are left to dry in the sun. They are picked when they are either bright orange or purple, then within a few days of being left in the sun change from a green to a brown, then black color.
White peppercorns are those that have had their husk, or pericarp, removed. Underneath, the seed is of a greyish white in color. These are picked and placed into sacks that are left in a cool flowing stream of water for one to weeks. This aids in loosening their pericarps.
Finally, there are red peppercorns. These are the fully mature berries of Piper nigrum. These are not the same family as the pink peppercorns which are varieties of Schinus terebinthifolius and Schinus molle.
It is worthwhile to learn that peppercorns are graded before they are sold to companies that market them. Good quality peppercorns are graded by size, texture, and color of their corn. A better quality corn will have fewer pinheads, or bits and pieces of contaminants.
According to McFadden (2008), it interesting to note that in the pepper corn industry the following terms are used:
“bold – A large peppercorn.
decorticated – Black peppercorns from which the husk has been removed by mechanical abrasion. Decorticated berries resemble white pepper but don’t have the characteristic pungency – they taste more like mediocre black peppercorns. They are used as a substitute for white pepper when white pepper is in short supply.
FAQ – Fair to average quality.
garbled – Cleaned peppercorns with stems, dust, and most of the ‘lights’ removed.
lights – Black peppercorns without a kernel and which float when stirred into an alcohol or methylated spirit solution.
pinheads – Very small immature and /or broken black peppercorns usually reserved for oleoresin extraction or for grinding.
special – The best grade for flavor.
ungarbled – Peppercorns that include a variety of sizes.”
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