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Pepper: The King of Spices

Pepper has been long hailed as the King of Spice. One of the most sought-after seasonings during the ancient spice trade days; it still remains as popular as ever in cuisines around the world.

It's easy to see why. Pepper can be used in just about any type of dish, both savory and sweet. It's the natural companion to salt for the most basic seasonings. And while black pepper is the most familiar form of this spice, there are many other types, each with its own distinct characteristics.

Pepper offers a warm, woodsy-like aroma emphasized by fresh citrus tones that sometimes contain a hint of clove. While white pepper lacks the aroma of black pepper, it delivers pungent flavor whereas green peppercorns have both a mild aroma and a mild pungency.

Even though all three peppercorns come from the same plant, they are harvested at different points of ripeness and diversely processed to create three distinct products. And there is also the pink peppercorn, with such a delicately floral flavor that it is best used on its own.

Pepper adds a nicely spicy bite to an assortment of fruits, such as strawberries or poached pears. It isn't uncommon to see black pepper used in sweet baked goods, such as shortbreads and Scandinavian Christmas cookies.

Because peppercorns are very stable when exposed to heat, they can be added to dishes early in the cooking process. The full flavor isn't released until the peppercorns are cracked or ground.

In addition to these familiar uses, pepper also acts to suppress other flavors. When combined with sugar, it can diminish the sweetness; so a black pepper ice cream will not only have the flavor and bite of pepper, it also will taste less sweet than a regular ice cream. Pepper can also suppress salty flavors. For example, if you over-salt something, adding black or white pepper to it can decrease the saltiness.

When buying whole peppercorns, grind them for each use and store the rest in an airtight container away from light. If purchasing ground pepper, the highest quality will have a pale-gray speckled appearance rather than looking extremely dark. Black peppercorns are white peppercorns with a dark outer hull, and after they are ground both white and black elements appear. Every now and then, black peppercorns may not contain the firm white center, which means that these peppercorns are lower grade, and less expensive. A ground pepper that is exceptionally dark contains a higher percentage of empty peppercorns.

How often do you use peppercorns? I can't remember a time when I didn't use fresh ground pepper, which brings me to this week's recipe. Try these easy-to-make fries to satisfy cravings for both salty and sweet flavors »»