Chefs and diners tout fleur de sel, black lava, and Hawaiian pink. But food scientists will tell you there’s really no discernible flavor difference among salts—it’s merely the texture (flake, coarse, fine grind) that’s tricking your taste buds. Pepper is another story. What we refer to as pepper is actually the fruit of a group of different plants growing in various parts of the world. Some are berries, some grow in pods, and their flavors can range from fruity to fierce. We think pepper is the new salt. Here are eight best bets—and some grinders to accessorize with. Test-drive your new peppercorns in our Peppercorn Ice Cream. The spice rack shown above is available at L’Epicerie.com. (And here are some more options for spice racks.)
Name: Balinese long pepper
Flavor profile: Like black pepper, this has a fruity, pungent complexity. It can enhance everything from cheese to steak.
Grows: In long, cattail-shaped pods from the Piper retrofractum tree in the mountains of Indonesia.
Where to buy: The Occasional Gourmet
Name: Black Tellicherry
Flavor profile: This large, aromatic peppercorn is considered the best of the best. Gives a sharp, robust flavor, making food pop.
Grows: On the Piper nigrum tree in Tellicherry, on India’s Malabar coast.
Where to buy: The Spice House
Name: Green peppercorn
Flavor profile: As its name suggests, this pepper is somewhat herbal, bright, and fresh, thanks to being young. A French pick for sauces and fish.
Grows: From the same Piper nigrum trees that produce black and white peppercorns. Picked while still green, this pepper is heated to kill the ripening process and then dried to preserve the color.
Where to buy: L’Epicerie
Name: Jamaican pepper/allspice
Flavor profile: Mash up cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon with a bit of black pepper—that’s the taste of this nonpepper “pepper.” Used in Caribbean savory dishes and all kinds of baking.
Grows: On the allspice tree as berries that emerge from little white flowers.
Where to buy: Penzeys Spices
Name: Pink peppercorn/Peruvian pepper
Flavor profile: Although it resembles green, black, and white peppercorns, it’s actually from a different plant entirely. This pepper has a delicate bite but very mild heat, with berrylike sweetness—perfect for salads and sweets. Just don’t eat a whole handful: It’s toxic in large quantities.
Grows: In little clusters on the tips of the Baies rose plant, native to South America.
Where to buy: World Spice Merchants
Name: Szechuan pepper
Flavor profile: More fragrant than black pepper, this has a lemony, tongue-tingling heat that’s intensified by toasting. Essential in fiery Chinese dishes, or ground as part of five-spice powder.
Grows: As reddish-brown berries on prickly ash trees throughout China. The berries are dried and the inner seeds removed.
Where to buy: igourmet.com
Name: White peppercorn
Flavor profile: Because this is essentially the core of a black peppercorn with the outer shell removed, there’s less of a sharp bite than with black, and more of a subtle heat. A favorite in Germany, white pepper is perfect for dishes lighter in color and flavor.
Grows: In grapelike clusters on the Piper nigrum trees of India’s tropical coast.
Where to buy: Spice of Life Gourmet Peppercorns
Name: Cubeb pepper
Flavor profile: This variety is similar to black pepper but more pungent, with a piney bitterness that pairs well with red meat or wild game. It is used in the Moroccan ras el hanout and is one of the botanicals that flavor Bombay Sapphire gin. The peppercorns can be distinguished from black peppercorns by the small stem, or “tail,” sticking out of one end.
Grows: As berries on the Piper cubeba tree, a relative of the Piper nigrum that grows in Indonesia and some central African countries.
Where to buy: Big Tree Farms