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Twist the grinder filled with whole black pepper to add an earthy, pungent kick to whatever’s on your plate. Black pepper enhances the flavour of meat, gives a spicy bite to soups and stews and brings layers of additional flavour to vegetables. But peppercorns aren’t just for grinding at the table or stove. Added whole, they bring gentle heat. Use them in the herb sachet called bouquet garni that flavours long-simmered stocks and stews. Add them to brines for whole chickens, turkeys and pork roasts. We love to include peppercorns in spice mixes for pickling, too. If your nose starts tingling when you take a whiff of the open bottle, you’ll know your peppercorns are McCormick.
Q: If I don’t have whole black peppercorns on hand, what makes a good substitute?
A: Any black pepper—coarse or finely ground—will add spice and heat at the table or stove. For slow-cooked soups or stews, add ground pepper near the end of cooking rather than early on. For pickling, whole peppercorns work best, but you can also use ground pepper. If you have no black pepper of any kind in the pantry, substitute white pepper or a dash of red pepper, also called cayenne. Red pepper is chili pepper and much hotter than black or white pepper, so use a light hand.
Today black peppercorns are abundant, gracing kitchens and tables around the world. But in ancient times, they were a rare and valuable commodity, sometimes used to pay dowries and even rent. The search for black peppercorns is one of the quests that brought Christopher Columbus to the New World. Today, peppercorns are still one of the world’s most valued and beloved spices.