May 4, 2010

Pepper - Is It Really Better to Grind Peppercorns Instead of Using Ground Pepper?

Last week, I was watching a rerun of the Barefoot Contessa on Food Network and I heard Ina Garten explain that she grinds her peppercorns in a spice mill and then keeps them in a little bowl next to the salt on her counter.  As she spoke, she took pinches of both salt and pepper from cute little white dishes and tossed them into whatever she was cooking. 

Switch to last night.  I had insomnia and pulled an old Josephine Tey off the shelf.  There, toward the end, the detective is thwarted by his captive tossing the contents of an entire pepper pot into Inspector Grant's face, and making his getaway.  Pepper pot? 

English Pepper Pots

So, this morning I went and searched for pepper pots and discovered an adorable antique pepper pot on sale for $51.00, made of sterling silver, over at Tias.com.  I also found antique condiment sets, where salt and pepper were joined by dry mustard on tables of the past. 

Pepper Grinders

Of course, today we see grinders everywhere.  They're even selling pepper in little throw-away plastic grinders at the grocery store.  But is this better than having your pepper ground before you use it?

Grinding Peppercorns versus Buying Ground Pepper

I've done some web surfing on the subject of pepper this morning, and here's what I've learned.  First, ground peppercorns are better than buying pepper that's already been ground for you.  Freeze a peppercorn, and it'll last almost indefinitely.  Ground pepper, just like any other spice, has a shelf life.

However, grinding peppercorns as you need better may not be the best thing, either.  A stiff grinder doesn't produce that much pepper - and you may stop grinding before you've obtained all the spice that you need (or that the recipe calls for).  Watch for this -- I know this is true for me.  Grind onto a white cloth, and see how little is coming out despite all your elbow grease.

So, the Barefoot Contessa does it again. 

Grinding peppercorns in a spice mill (me, I use a $20 coffee bean grinder with a handmade "Spices" label on the side) for a couple of weeks worht of ground pepper at a time, keeping the rest of the peppercorns frozen, is the best option. 

Plus you get to go find yourself a really cool pepper pot. 

2 comments:

Nathan Roach said...

Reba,

One reason that freshly ground pepper tastes better than pre-ground pepper is a lack of oxidation. It's the same principle as why sliced apples turn brown. Fruits contain polyphenols which react with oxygen in the air, causing browning and loss of flavor. Oxidation can be retarded by exposure to natural preservatives such as the citric acid in lemon juice, or commercial preservatives like sulfur dioxide.

Pepper also contains various phelolic acids that are vulnerable to oxidation. Black pepper is actually just an aged green peppercorn and the black color results from oxidation of the outside of the pepper corn. You can keep green peppercorns from going black by stopping the oxidation in the same way you'd preserve a cut apple.

When you crack or grind peppercorns yourself, you expose the un-oxidized white center, and thus are releasing flavor that hasn't been exposed to air and degraded to the extent that pre-ground pepper has.

Another reason for the more pungent flavor of freshly ground pepper is the release of flavor oils. The peppercorns contain these oils naturally (which are sometimes extracted through steam distillation) and when ground or cracked, the corns can release these flavor elements that present a warm, woody tone. Commercially ground pepper can lose this flavor note if the oils are lost in the grinding and packaging steps.

Maybe that's a bit more information that necessary, but the point is that you're absolutely right to grind your own pepper if you value the natural complexity that good natural peppercorns can add to a dish.

Nathan

Reba Kennedy said...

Nathan,
Hi buddy! Thanks for writing! What a great post, complete with links for even more info. Wonderful stuff here -- thx again,
Reba