Peppercorn, or piper nigrum, was once known as “black gold”. But the name is rather deceiving. Though even the nigrum of piper nigrum means “black”, peppercorn actually comes in four distinct colors. These are green, red, black (of course), and white pepper all of which come from the same plant. However, each pepper is processed differently, giving them culinary attributes unique to each color.
Green pepper is the first color formed of the four types. Arranged in long bundles along the vine, the peppercorn fruit is harvested when it has reached full size, though still unripe giving it its verdant color. Because of its immaturity, the flavor has less head than a more mature black or red peppercorn. To preserve their freshness, they are usually brined and then sold in stores. A similar process can be applied to red peppercorns, though brining causes them to lose their distinct flavor.
Red pepper is the most difficult to place within the peppercorn family. Though the green berry does redden as it ripens, a true peppercorn will not get any darker than an orange-red. Matured orange-red peppercorn is often equated with “pink” pepper. However, these pink peppercorns actually descend from a completely different plant, schinus molle.
Black pepper is harvested between the “green” and “red” peppercorn stages. Once the berry turns a bright orange or deep purple, they are picked and laid out to dry. During the drying process, the outer husk gradually darkens into the familiar black. While this husk is perfectly edible, it can be removed in order to make white peppercorn.
White pepper is made from “husking” mature peppercorn. Usually picked just before or during the “orange-red” stage, the fruit is then soaked to loosen the pericarp (outer husk). Softened by the water, this shell is then remove to expose a cream or ashy-grey core. Workers then rewash the fruit and leave it to dry. This arduous process contributes to why white peppercorn typically exceeds the price of the other available pepper varieties.
While price likely played a large role in keeping common peppercorn black, its shelf life is what induced the “one color” peppercorn market. White peppercorn requires an extended drying process. This preserves the pepper flavor nicely, but at a high cost. Both green and red peppercorns can be cheaply preserved through brining, but this process overpowers or decreases the fruit’s flavor. Up until recently, any country that couldn’t grow their own had no way of getting an authentic green or red peppercorn. So they settled for the dried black or white variety.
But this has started to change. Instead of relying solely on brining, green and red peppercorns can now be freeze-dried; this helps retain more of the fruit’s natural flavor. And while this process comes with its own set-backs, it helps pave the way for future distribution–and a more colorful pepper grinder on the table.