How to Make the Best Black Pepper

December 8, 2010 § 7 Comments

Today I made black pepper.

You might be puzzling skeptically at how I made black pepper, since I don’t live in a tropical climate, which is where black pepper is grown (it’s native to India but also cultivated in Southeast Asia).

Okay, so maybe “made” is a bit of a stretch. But I did what I learned to do from Sally Schmitt, original owner of The French Laundry: I put black Tellicherry peppercorns into a sesame roaster…

Stove-top sesame roaster

…roasted them over an open flame, and ground them by hand in a suribachi. (A suribachi is a Japanese ceramic mortar lined with tiny grooves to facilitate grinding and is used with a surikogi, a pestle made of wood versus stone so that it doesn’t wear down the ridges.)

Suribachi with toasted peppercorns

Even though it takes longer and your arm and shoulder are tired by the end, I love “making” pepper this way. Toasting the peppercorns before crushing them enriches their aroma, and the resulting flavor is smoky and spicy — much better than that of already-ground pepper from a plastic bottle, or even freshly-ground pepper out of a pepper mill.

I enjoy using this method to prepare pepper not just because of the culinary benefits, but also because it reminds me of two women who imparted cooking wisdom and traditions to me.

Cradling the ceramic suribachi in one arm and taking the smooth surikogi in my other hand reminds me of when my great-aunt taught me to grind sesame seeds when I lived in Hiroshima for a year. I can still feel the memory: sitting at her kitchen table, my shoulder beginning to ache slightly as I moved the pestle round and round, slowly grinding the toasted sesame into a paste that we then made into a dressing for steamed spinach. I’d smell the rich sesame scent, feel the seeds jump around the bowl until they surrendered to softness, and gaze at the jars of home-made pickles and moonshine that my great-aunt always had on hand. (Her cure for the common cold was to give me a jar of the moonshine, instructing me to drink a few spoonfuls in a mug of hot water before wrapping myself in blankets and going to sleep.)

Today, as I noticed the peppercorns transform from wrinkled, dark spheres to mottled gravel and inhaled their heavenly smell (I wish I could record that and share it with you here — it’s incredible), I also remembered Sally, who taught me to do this in the first place. Sally and her husband, Don, opened The French Laundry as a neighborhood bistro serving one set menu per night (dinners like duck confit with savory, sauteed apples) before it became Thomas Keller’s temple of fine dining. Sally and Don then opened The Apple Farm, an organic apple orchard that also offers weekend cooking classes, with their daughter and son-in-law. Even though my husband and I took that class four years ago, I can still picture Sally’s infectious smile and her sure moves around the kitchen, and since then, her seasonal recipes and tips on making omelets, crushing garlic, and of course, making pepper play regular roles in my repertoire.

Toasted, ground pepper

The resulting pepper isn’t uniform like what you’d buy at the store, but it’s what Japanese folks would call wabisabi — beautiful in its imperfections. And there’s nothing like patting that pepper on a roasted, pasture-raised chicken that led a happy life, sprinkling it on a salad made with hearty winter greens, or tossing it with oven-toasted walnuts.

See below for where to buy the necessary goods and method. I hope you’ll try “making” your own pepper one day.

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Where to Buy The Goods — And A Few Notes

  • You can buy a pound of Tellicherry peppercorns for $5.35 from the San Francisco Herb Company here, which is cheaper than buying the equivalent weight of already-ground black pepper at the store
  • Stainless sesame roaster available here (get one with a wooden, vs. all-stainless, handle; otherwise it’ll to be too hot to handle)
  • Suribachi and surikogi available here (the suribachi is originally from Southern China and was introduced in Japan during the 11th or 12th century; it was originally used to grind medicines, then flour, then miso and other foods)
  • If you’re interested in The Apple Farm’s cooking classes, click here

The roaster is great for toasting other whole spices that you can then grind in the suribachi. For example, I love toasting and grinding whole cumin, then using it in salad dressing made with white wine vinegar and olive oil, or mixing it with sour cream to top Mexican dishes. Also, the roaster will darken from the stove heat as you use it, but I like the aged patina it acquires. Feels homey.

Method

1 — Place peppercorns in sesame roaster (don’t make too much at one time because pepper loses its pungency within a month). If you don’t have a sesame roaster and don’t want to buy one, see the comment below to Archana about roasting them in a pan

2 — Turn on your stove burner to low and hover the roaster slightly above the burner, shaking it every so often so they toast evenly

3 — The peppercorns will start popping like popcorn. Let them pop for a few seconds (peppercorns will just begin to smoke and you’ll smell that heavenly smell!), then take the roaster off the flame (you don’t want to leave the roaster on the flame too long or the pepper will scorch)

4 — Pour the peppercorns into the suribachi. Hold the suribachi in one hand, wedging it against your body for leverage if needed, hold the surikogi in your other hand, and grind by moving the surikogi in circles

5 — Store ground pepper in a container that doesn’t let light in (I use a small ceramic container), ideally in a cool place*

*If exposed to light, pepper loses its flavor because the light energy rearranges the piperine, the pungent compound found in peppercorns’ skin, into a tasteless molecule called isochavicine) —On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, by Harold McGee, p. 428

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