Black peppercorn (Piper nigrum) is a flowering vine in the family Piperaceae, cultivated for its fruit, which is usually dried and used as a spice and seasoning. When dried, the fruit is known as a peppercorn. When fresh and fully mature, it is approximately 5 millimetres (0.20 in) in diameter, dark red, and, like all drupes, contains a single seed. Peppercorns, and the ground pepper derived from them, may be described simply as pepper, or more precisely as black pepper (cooked and dried unripe fruit), green pepper (dried unripe fruit) and white pepper (ripe fruit seeds).
Black pepper is native to south India and is extensively cultivated there and elsewhere in tropical regions. Currently, Vietnam is the world’s largest producer and exporter of pepper, producing 34% of the world’s Piper nigrum crop as of 2013.
Dried ground pepper has been used since antiquity for both its flavor and as a traditional medicine. Black pepper is the world’s most traded spice. It is one of the most common spices added to cuisines around the world. The spiciness of black pepper is due to the chemical piperine, not to be confused with the capsaicin characteristic of chili peppers. Black pepper is ubiquitous in the modern world as a seasoning and is often paired with salt.
The word “pepper” has its roots in the Tamil word for long pepper, pippali. Ancient Greek and Latin turned pippali into the Greek πέπερι peperi and then into the Latin piper, which was used by the Romans to refer both to black pepper and long pepper, as the Romans erroneously believed that both of these spices were derived from the same plant.
Today’s “pepper” derives from the Old English pipor. and from Latin which was the source of Romanian piper, Italian pepe, Dutch peper, German Pfeffer, French poivre, and other similar forms.
In the 16th century, pepper started referring to the unrelated New World chili pepper as well. “Pepper” was used in a figurative sense to mean “spirit” or “energy” at least as far back as the 1840s; in the early 20th century, this was shortened to pep.
Black peppercorn is produced from the still-green, unripe drupes of the pepper plant. The drupes are cooked briefly in hot water, both to clean them and to prepare them for drying; the heat ruptures cell walls in the pepper, speeding the work of browning enzymes during drying. The drupes are dried in the sun or by machine for several days, during which the pepper around the seed shrinks and darkens into a thin, wrinkled black layer. Once dried, the spice is called black peppercorn. On some estates, the berries are separated from the stem by hand and then sun-dried without the boiling process.
Once the peppercorns are dried, pepper spirit and oil can be extracted from the berries by crushing them. Pepper spirit is used in many medicinal and beauty products. Pepper oil is also used as an ayurvedic massage oil and used in certain beauty and herbal treatments.
Ground white pepper is used in Chinese and Thai cuisine, but also in salads, cream sauces, light-coloured sauces, and mashed potatoes (where black pepper would visibly stand out). White pepper has a different flavour from black pepper; it lacks certain compounds present in the outer layer of the drupe.
Green pepper, like black, is made from the unripe drupes. Dried green peppercorns are treated in a way that retains the green colour, such as treatment with sulphur dioxide, canning or freeze-drying. Pickled peppercorns, also green, are unripe drupes preserved in brineor vinegar. Fresh, unpreserved green pepper drupes, largely unknown in the West, are used in some Asian cuisines, particularly Thai cuisine. Their flavour has been described as spicy and fresh, with a bright aroma. They decay quickly if not dried or preserved.