How is Pepper made?
How is Pepper made?
USDA Hardiness Zones 11b to 12
Pepper, the spice that accompanies salt at practically every meal, is made from peppercorns. The peppercorns grow on perennial, woody, flowering, vines that bear small, red fruit known as drupes. The drupes are cooked briefly and dried to produce peppercorns. Once ground they produce the most widely used spice in the world: Black pepper. Green pepper comes from dried unripe fruit and white pepper is made from unripe fruit seeds.
Peppercorn vines are native to southeast Asia and thrive in tropical climates. They take root easily where trailing stems make contact with the ground and can grow up 15 feet high on supporting trees, trellises or poles by means of aerial roots. Its leaves are oblong and arranged alternately along the stem. The flowers that produce the drupes grow in clusters on pendulous spikes, approximately 1 to 3 inches in length. A single stem bears 20 to 30 fruiting spikes, with each spike producing 50 or more drupes.
Peppercorn plants require moist, well-drained soil and warm, humid conditions. They cannot tolerate temperatures that drop below 60 degrees Fahrenheit. In very warm, moist climates, peppercorn vines may be planted outdoors, in partial shade. In most regions of the United States, however, they are grown in containers that are moved indoors during cold seasons.
Peppercorn vines may be propagated by seed or from cuttings.
To propagate by seed, seeds are soaked overnight to soften seed coats. They are then planted ¼ inch deep in well-drained soil, spaced approximately three inches apart. Temperature needs to be maintained at 75 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit to promote germination which takes approximately 45 days. Soil is kept moist to prevent seeds from drying out, and transplanted to larger pots as the plant grows.
The peppercorn vine can also be propagated from cuttings, approximately 15 to 20 inches long. The vines root easily when they come in contact with moist, well fertilized soil, and cuttings can be tied to trees or trellises placed approximately five feet apart. Pepper plants will climb more easily on trees that have rough bark. Plant roots are covered with leafy mulch to help maintain moisture.
Peppercorn plants take 3 to 4 years after planting before the first fruit is harvested. They are most productive when approximately 8 years old but may continue bearing for up to 30 years. They first produce white or yellow flowers during the spring and summer which then form clusters of green drupes that eventually ripen into a deep red color.
Peppercorn is generally harvested just as it reaches the red phase. The drupes grow in clusters of 50 or more berries on spikes along the stem and are easily separated from the plant. The process that occurs following the drupes’ removal from the plant dictates what type of spice will be produced.
To produce black peppercorn, the most popular variety of peppercorn, unripe drupes undergo a drying-out and cooking process. The drupes are first cooked briefly in hot water to clean and prepare them for drying. The heat from the cooking process ruptures the cell wall which facilitates the work of browning enzymes during the drying process. The drupes are then dried, either in the sun or in a food dryer, for several days. During this time, the seed shrivels and darkens into a strongly flavored spice known as black pepper.
White peppercorn is produced by removing the ripe red hull from the seed without cooking the drupe. This is done by retting, a process of soaking the drupe in water for approximately a week during which time the hull decomposes. The hulls may also be removed by a mechanical or chemical process. Once separated from the hull, the seed is dried to produce a milder form of spice known as white pepper.
Green pepper is harvested from the vine while the unripened drupe is still green. They can be freeze-dried, canned, or pickled. Fresh, unpreserved green peppers decay quickly, and are not commonly used in the West.
As long as they remain in a dark or dry environment, peppercorns can be stored for an indefinite period of time. Once ground, the flavor evaporates quickly, so it is suggested that peppercorns be ground just before using. Green, unripe peppercorns can be freeze-dried, canned, or pickled by preserving the freshly harvested drupes in vinegar or brine.
The peppercorn vine is indigenous to Kerala, a province on the Malabar Coast in southwest India. Said to be cultivated as long as 4000 years ago, peppercorn’s known history dates back as far as 1000 BC, when it was traded widely throughout Arabia.
By the Middle Ages, Arabian traders still controlled the peppercorn trade to the West, but merchants in Italian City States such as Venice had a monopoly on trade routes once the spice reached the Mediterranean. Prices for black pepper were high in Europe during the medieval era, when it was considered a luxury spice only available to the wealthy, and was even used as currency. In contemporary culture, the Dutch phrase, “pepperduur,” or “pepper expensive,” refers to objects of great monetary value.
Exorbitant Venetian peppercorn prices during the late Middle Ages forced other European countries such as Portugal and Spain to seek alternate trade routes with Asia. Christopher Columbus discovered the New World in 1492, in an attempt to reach the East Indies by sailing westward. He returned to Spain in 1492 with the first chili pepper seeds from the Americas in an attempt to introduce an alternative to peppercorn in Europe.
Vasco de Gama established the first route from Portugal to India by sailing around Africa, and this second route was utilized by the Portuguese, and later the Dutch and English, to greatly increase the flow of peppercorn to Europe via the Indian Ocean, thus toppling the Venetian monopoly on the spice. By the middle of the 17th century, black pepper had become an everyday seasoning throughout the average household in Europe, and today accounts for ⅕ of the world’s spice trade.
Vietnam is the world’s top producer of peppercorn, followed by India, Brazil, Indonesia, and Malaysia, according to FAOSTAT data from 2008.
The most common are black peppercorns, picked when the drupes are red, which are quickly cooked and dried to maximize flavor.
White pepper loses some of the taste of black peppercorns as it is the seed of the peppercorn without the flavor of the outer brown layer. It's mostly used in white sauces and soups in order to blend in with the color of the dish it's a part of.
Green peppercorns are the unripe fruit of the vine and pack a more powerful punch than their dried relations. They must also be eaten or stored in a timely fashion as they will spoil quickly.
Peppercorn has been used for centuries as a spice and for medicinal purposes. It can be used in a spice rub and as a spicy complement to virtually any dish. Black pepper oil is used medicinally for its antifungal, analgesic, antiseptic, and anti-inflammatory purposes, among others described below.
Black pepper is not only a spice that can enhance virtually any recipe, but it also has an array of health benefits. High in manganese and vitamin K, black pepper promotes digestive health and provides numerous benefits to ward off ailments.
Just two tablespoons of black pepper contain 35% of the daily value of manganese, a mineral that helps the body regulate metabolism, aids in calcium absorption, and helps promote healthy brain and nerve function.
The metabolism boost established by the manganese levels in black pepper assists in the weight loss process.
Black pepper is also a strong antioxidant. The spice contains the cancer fighting properties of vitamin K, as well as an alkaloid compound called piperine, which reduces the cell-damaging free radicals in the body. Relief of oxidative stress provided by piperine can promote stronger immunity and serve as a preventative against cancer and chronic diseases.
Piperine can also help the body maintain healthy cholesterol levels by reducing LDL (bad) cholesterol and plaque-forming triglycerides in the blood while simultaneously raising HDL (good) cholesterol levels. Plaque buildup in the arteries can lead to stroke and heart conditions, which can be prevented by maintaining healthy cholesterol levels.
Black pepper stimulates the taste buds, alerting the stomach to produce more hydrochloric acid, which is an essential component in digestion. Insufficient production of hydrochloric acid can result in heartburn and indigestion.
Black pepper can be used as an expectorant to relieve congestion and clear the sinuses. It also contains antibacterial and antifungal properties to help prevent cavities and gum disease. Historically, it has been used to battle tooth infections, as well as illnesses including influenza and dysentery.