The heat is on! If you want to know your spices, start with the difference between black pepper and white pepper.
Flip through the pages of your favorite cookbook, and it won’t take you long to notice that some recipes use black pepper, while others use white pepper.
If you’re curious by nature as I am, you can’t help but wonder about the difference between black and white pepper—and whether you can use these two piquant spices, each unique in its own way, interchangeably in your home cooking.
So join me as I set out to find out.
Black and white pepper, as it turns out, are both made from peppercorn berries, the tiny fruits of the climbing vine Piper nigrum. The difference between the two lies in when the berries are picked and how they are processed into the respective spice.
For black pepper, the peppercorn berries are picked green and dried whole. For white pepper, they are picked yellow or red, then they are fermented for a week or so in water, and then their skin is removed, leaving only the seeds to dry.
Sources differ on which is the hotter pepper variety of the two.
Two of the food writers whose opinions I value most say that white pepper is the less pungent variety, though only just.
“White pepper is about as pungent as black pepper,” writes Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, “but lacks much of its aroma due to the removal of the other fruit layer.”
“Because the skins have been removed,” Mark Bittman writes in How to Cook Everything, “white pepper is milder than black.” Bittman recommends white pepper for “everything from cream sauces to fruit desserts, anytime you’re looking for the range of pepper flavors with a little less punch.”
Still, everyone seems to agree that black pepper has a sharper, more complex flavor than white pepper does. White pepper, on the other hand, has a milder, earthier flavor that many describe as musty, slightly fermented, and somewhat barn-like.
All About Black Pepper
For black pepper, the berries are picked when they are still green. They are blanched in hot water to clean them up and hasten the work of the browning enzymes. Then, they are dried whole until the fleshy skin shrivels and takes on a brown-black color.
The boiling water helps to clean the berries from the dust and dirt left by the harvest. It also accelerates the work of the enzymes responsible for their dark color.
During drying—traditionally done in the sun, but nowadays in machines— the seed turns brown to black, and the skin surrounding it shrinks to a thin, wrinkly, fragrant outer layer.
The dry spice is called “black peppercorn” and is sold whole or ground into black pepper before packaging.
Buying and Storing Black Pepper
Get a good pepper mill, buy your peppercorns whole, and grind them up whenever you need them. If you can at the store, give the packaging a good whiff and make sure the peppercorns smell pungent but not acrid.
Store your black pepper in an airtight container in a cool and dry place, such as a closed cupboard or a pantry shelf, not on the windowsill or near the stove, fridge, or freezer.
Whole peppercorns, Peggy Trowbridge Filippone writes for The Spruce Eats, last up to one year, whereas ground pepper loses much of its original appeal after four months.
When Should You Use Black Pepper?
Black pepper is the most popular seasoning after salt; the king of all spices. Use it with pork, beef, veal, lamb, and venison. It works wonders with tomato or vinegar sauces and is great for adding heat to salads.
- Add a few whole black peppercorns to pickled cucumbers, bell peppers, jalapeno, and onions to brighten and preserve their taste.
- Add generous amounts of freshly-cracked black peppercorn to Pasta alla Carbonara and Cacio e Pepe.
- Season beef steaks and beef burgers with kosher salt and black pepper before putting them on the grill or searing it in your frying pan.
All About White Pepper
In the case of white pepper, the berries are left to ripen completely and are picked only when they have turned yellow or red. They are soaked in water for 7 to 10 days, during which bacteria ferment the skin, then the skins are removed and the seeds are dried.
During the week-long soaking, bacteria eat away the skin of the berries, causing it to soften and rot. The rubbing removes any leftover skin, and then the seed is dried (in the sun or, more commonly these days, in special machines).
The dry spice is called “white peppercorn.” It’s sold whole or ground into white pepper before being packaged and sold. Since white peppercorn is fermented and lacks the outer layer of black peppercorn, it has a completely different aroma and flavor profile.
Buying and Storing White Pepper
Like black pepper, white pepper smells and tastes its best when the peppercorns have been packaged whole, and not ground up beforehand. (A good pepper mill can take your home cooking to a new level and is one of those kitchen gadgets you should spend a little extra on.)
Store your white pepper in an airtight container in a cool and dry place, such as a closed cupboard or a pantry shelf, not on the windowsill or near the stove, fridge, or freezer.
When Should You Use White Pepper?
White pepper is common in French and, across the Atlantic, Cajun cooking. Use white pepper with poultry, fish and seafood, eggs and omelets, grilled vegetables, and white sauces.
- Add white pepper to clam chowder and Moules Marinière (French for mussels in white wine sauce).
- Season pork chops and pork roast with white pepper before putting them in the pan or in your oven to enrich them with a barn smell.
- Use white pepper in German and Austrian recipes, including Wiener schnitzel, Oktoberfest beer brats, and potato and red onion salad.