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Cooking Knowledge, Non Recipes, Nutrition

Let’s talk about pepper – Part 4: South America

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Historically, South America hasn’t been a major pepper producing region. Yet Brazil is one of the major pepper producers nowadays. It was after World War II, that pepper cultivation became widespread in Brazil. The cultivars grown there are usually less spicy than the ones grown in Southeast Asia.

I don’t want to classify South American pepper as a bad choice. It’s an acceptable product for the mass market yet you shouldn’t expect any wonders from it. A pepper variety that I am going to review in the taste test section later is smoked Bucay pepper from Ecuador. This one is a very nice choice if you’d like to add barbecue flavor to your food without the need to put on your charcoal grill or smoker.

With the lack of historical events related to pepper from South America, this frees up some space to discuss two more topics regarding pepper in this post:

  • The best method to grind pepper
  • The health benefits of pepper

How to grind pepper

You might know that pepper should ideally always be freshly ground. The reason is obvious: Aromatics are volatile and thus evaporate easily. If the peppercorns are ground, you increase the surface area which encourages evaporation of the volatile flavor compounds inside the peppercorns. You want these essential oils to be released when you eat your food and not lose them during storage. So always ground your pepper fresh for the best taste experience.

Pepper mill
The pepper mill is the most common way to ground pepper in Europe.

The most common way to grind pepper nowadays in the Western world is the pepper mill. Yet there are also other ways how to ground pepper. You can also use a stone mill, mortar and pestle, or even a blender. All these grinding techniques yield pepper of a different quality.

The pepper mill we are using at our table nowadays is an attrition mill. It can give us very fine and more coarsely ground peppercorns depending on the setting of the pepper mill. The texture we get from a blender can be very fine and smooth as well whereas pepper that has been ground with a mortar and pestle is usually relatively coarse and uneven in size.

Yet from a health and flavor perspective, the best method to mill pepper is with a mortar and pestle. This might be the most laborsome way but scholarly research supports the claim that the nutrients are best kept intact if the pepper is ground by using a mortar and pestle. The second best method after the mortar and pestle is to use a stone mill.

As you can see, our modern attrition mills and spice grinders might be the most convenient way to mill pepper but they are not the best methods when it comes to flavor release and nutrient retention.

Mortar and pestle
A mortar and pestle is the superior way to ground pepper.

Why pounded pepper is more flavorful than milled one

This is because attrition mills and spice grinders cut the pepper rather than pounding it like you would in a mortar and pestle. Pounding pepper in a mortar helps to release more of the aromatic oils which make the flavor of the pepper more intense. This is actually well known across many cultures. Almost no one outside of Europe and the US uses a pepper mill. That’s a European invention for convenience.

Before pepper mills became en vogue in Europe, a mortar and pestle was the most common way to ground spices and to produce other tasty foods like Italian pesto or nut butter. Almost no one today would pound peanuts, almonds, or hazelnuts to produce nut butter. That is because we obviously have a food processor available that is very convenient to use.

I don’t want to discourage you from using your food processor or pepper mill. In fact, I use a pepper mill myself most of the time. But if you want to get the most out of your pepper, for example, by using it as a garnish for an expensive steak, then yes, you might want to use a mortar and pestle for the most flavorsome result.

Pepper steak with coarsley ground pepper
Pepper that has been coarsely ground in a mortar and pestle is the best choice for pepper steak.

Other than that, no matter which method you chose to mill your pepper with, the two biggest influences on taste will always be:

  • The storage time (age) of your peppercorns (less than 6 months of storage time is ideal)
  • The time you mill the pepper (shortly before serving is best)

The health benefits of pepper

The health benefits of pepper can mainly be attributed to one major component: piperine. Piperine is the molecule that lends pepper its spicy taste.

From a scientific point of view though, it is impossible to say if pepper improves your health or not. Nutritional science is a complicated topic. A lot of the research contradicts itself and a lot of studies performed are full of flaws.

There are indications that pepper aids digestion and improves the bioavailability of nutrients. This is the main reason why curcumin extract, which is meant to be consumed as a nutritional supplement, always has piperine added to it.

Curcumin capsules
Curcumin capsules often have piperine added to them to improve the bioavailability.

There is also evidence that black pepper might stimulate the secretion of digestive enzymes that help you feel full after a meal and that ease the food’s transit through the gastrointestinal tract.

What is for sure though, is that pepper won’t harm you. So even if your digestion isn’t improved by it, you don’t need to worry about consuming it.

Taste test of South American pepper

For today’s taste test, I’m going to give you my sensory impressions of Belem pepper from Brazil and smoked Bucay pepper from Ecuador.

Belem pepper

Belem pepper

Belem pepper is obviously no gourmet pepper. Yet it has a well-balanced flavor that is suitable for most applications. For my taste, it is a bit too mild. However, if you’re looking for a cheap pepper, Belem is a solid choice.

Diameter4 millimeters
Density490 grams per liter
Colormedium to dark brown
SmellThis pepper is more on the woody/ earthy side than on the herbal one. The smell is a bit musty. It’s not the most inviting smell. While the pine-flavor is there, it gets masked by the musty smell.

Observed flavor attributes:
Warm and Aromatic
Woody
Earthy
Musty
Pine-like
TasteThe spice level is moderate and develops slowly. It has a very woody taste with earthy undertones. Overall, a very pleasant taste yet not highly aromatic like the Indian peppercorns. The aftertaste is slightly citrusy. The taste is mild but well balanced.

Observed flavor attributes:
Woody
Earthy
Sweet
Spicy
Slightly Citrusy

Bucay pepper

Bucay pepper

This is a great example of how you can transform mediocre peppercorns into a delicious product. The smoke aroma really shines through in this Bucay pepper. A great choice if you want to impart a subtle smokiness to meats or vegetables. I love this pepper. This one is definitely a must-try.

Diameter3-5 millimeters
Density365 grams per liter
Colormid-brown, greyish
SmellA very pungent and intense smell that is pine-like on the on hand but also very earthy/ musty on the other hand. Very woody and intense smokey smell. The smell reminds me a bit of charcoal and fire.

Observed flavor attributes:
Pungent
Spicy
Pine-like
Earthy/ Musty
Woody
Smokey
TasteThe overall taste of the pepper is mild with a very noticeable smoke aroma. The pepper tastes similar to barbecued meat, complemented by the earthy and woody undertones. A very mild spiciness only. Overall, the pepper reminds me a little of German barbecued pork sausage.

Observed flavor attributes:
Smoke
Pork Sausage
Charcoal
Earthy
Woody
Sweet
Mild Spiciness

Resources:

Quality Assessment of Pepper Paste Using Different Milling Methods

Is Black Pepper Healthy? Here’s What the Science Says

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