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Pick the perfect pepper for your recipe

Pink, green, black, white and Szechuan types raise confusion
Pepper in various forms, starting at front, pink peppercorns, black peppercorns, green peppercorns, Szechuan peppercorns and ground white pepper.

Q What is the difference between different coloured peppercorns?

Donna Mears

A Donna will find five types of peppercorns for sale - white, black, green, pink and Szechuan, although the latter two are peppercorns in name only.

True peppercorns come from Piper nigrum, the botanical name for a tropical, climbing vine cultivated in several Asian countries. Drying the plants' small, pungent berries is how peppercorns are made. When they are picked determines the type of peppercorn you get.

Green peppercorns are berries picked when green, underripe and tender. At this point, they have not developed their full, pungent potential, but instead have a fresher taste with little bite. Green peppercorns are sold dried and, more frequently, in cans and jars packed in brine.

Green peppercorns, added whole or crushed, can be used in a wide array of dishes, from paté to a slow-simmered, wine-rich stew.

Black peppercorns are made from berries harvested when full size, but not completely ripe. When dried, the berries turn dark brown to black. They are sold whole or ground into black pepper.

This staple ingredient is added to everything imaginable from the sprinkle of pepper on your morning eggs to the whole peppercorns simmered in a homemade stock.

White peppercorns are made from berries that are fully ripe and at their spiciest. The berries are soaked and their outer covering removed. When dried, these berries are off-white in colour, hence the name white peppercorn.

White peppercorns are sold whole, or ground into white pepper.

Whole white peppercorns are great to use in marinades and brines, for such things as pickles and cured meats.

White pepper is often called for in recipes for milk-or cream-based sauces, soups and other light-coloured dishes, such as mashed potatoes, so the flecks of pepper aren't visible. No chef wants black pepper specks to make his cream sauce look dingy. When using white pepper, remember it is spicier than black pepper and just a little bit can add a lot of heat to a dish.

Pink peppercorns are made from berries harvested from the Baies rose plant, native to and cultivated in South America.

When dried, this rosy-pink coloured spice has a fruity, sweet, mild pepper taste and is similar in size to the "true" peppercorn. These peppercorns, like green peppercorns, can be found dried or packed in brine.

Pink peppercorns, left whole or coarsely crushed, can add colour and flavour to an array of hot and cold preparations. The possibilities include salad dressings, compound butters, and sauces or marinades for fish, poultry and meat.

Szechuan peppercorns are the result of harvesting and drying the berries of a prickly ash tree, native to China's Szechuan province. The dried berries look similar to black peppercorns and have a peppery taste.

Szechuan (also spelled Szechwan or Sichuan) peppercorns are sold whole or ground. You'll find them in Asian markets, such as those Victoria's Chinatown, and some bulk-food stores. The spice is most often used in Asian-style preparations such as soups, noodles, stews and marinades for meat and poultry. It is also used to make Chinese fivespice powder.

Another product you'll see for sale at supermarkets is a bottle blend called peppercorn medley or mélange. It consists of black, white, green and pink peppercorns. I like to coarsely crush them and flavour roast beef with them, as I've done in today's recipe.


This flavourful roast will make a fine Sunday dinner. Accompany it with mashed potatoes and a couple of simple vegetable side dishes.

Preparation time: 10 minutes

Cooking time: Depends on desired doneness (see method)

Makes: 4 to 6 servings

2 3/4 lb. top sirloin roast

1 Tbsp peppercorn medley or mélange, coarsely crushed, or to taste (see Note)

2 Tbsp Dijon mustard

1/2 to 1 tsp herbes de Provence (see Note)

1/3 cup red wine

2 cups beef broth or stock

Preheat oven to 450 F. Place beef in a small roasting pan or ovenproof skillet. Combine peppercorns, mustard and herbes de Provence in a small bowl. Brush the tops and sides of the meat with this mixture. Roast 20 minutes, and then lower oven temperature to 325 F.

Now roast the beef to desired doneness, allowing, approximately, 30 to 40 minutes more cooking time for rare, and 40 to 50 minutes for medium-rare to medium. Use an instantread meat thermometer to gauge doneness. A rare roast will be done at 120 F; a medium-rare roast will be 125 F to 130 F. (Remember the meat will continue to cook when it rests.)

Transfer roast to a plate. Tent the meat with foil and let rest 10 minutes.

To make the jus, set the pan or skillet over mediumhigh heat. Add the wine, bring to a simmer and scrape the pan to lift off any brown bits on the bottom. Add the stock, simmer a few minutes more, and the jus is ready.

Thinly slice the beef, set on a platter and serve the jus in a sauceboat alongside.

Note: If you don't have a spice or pepper grinder to coarsely crush the peppercorns, set them in a small, thick plastic bag and use a kitchen hammer to crush them. Or, set the peppercorns on a cutting board and use the bottom of a heavy skillet to press, roll and crush them.

Herbes de Provence is an aromatic French-style blend of dried herbs. You can buy it in the spice aisle at most supermarkets. If you can't find it, you could simply use dried thyme or rosemary in this recipe.

Eric Akis is the author of the bestselling Everyone Can Cook series of cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.

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