Black pepper: The heated debate about how best to use it

It should be ground freshly – but should the steak be seasoned before or after frying?

It seems the French are too blame for putting salt and pepper together. Photograph: Getty Images

It seems the French are too blame for putting salt and pepper together. Photograph: Getty Images

 

“The devil is in the details” is an idiom whose truth always pops up when investigating food. What seemed simple at first turns out to be a complex social and historical phenomenon. Take black pepper, for instance. We use it habitually, sprinkling it on our steaks, salads and sandwiches. But why is this? And why black pepper? Why not white or green or pink or the many other types of pepper (such as Sichuan, java or tellicherry) that are detailed in the 2016 book Pepper All around the World: Stories and Spices. Asia accounts for 45 per cent of the production, with Europe and North America consuming 40 per cent of the world’s total.

Pepper, which comes from the Sanskrit word pali, is a dried fruit, a berry to be specific, that adds heat or piquancy to your meal. It is spice. It changes the flavour of your food. It is nothing like salt, which it is often paired with. It seems the French are to blame, putting salt and pepper together as the “king of the spices”. You can’t really blame them: up until the 17th century, a spice was anything that came from afar, such as rice, sugar or salt. 

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What is it that makes steak and pepper work so well? Do you put it in before frying or after? Should it be ready-ground or ground freshly from the mill? While the jury will certainly be in favour of freshly ground from the mill, it seems it is out on whether to season before or after frying. Putting it on before runs the risk of burning, but putting it on after misses the chance to fuse the piquancy if the pepper with the caramelisation of the steak’s surface.

While the issue of putting pepper on before or after cooking is in flux, the addition of salt before cooking is usually a given. Though not for French molecular chemist and chef Hervé This, who recommends not salting the meat “because the phenomenon of osmosis causes the juices to escape the meat when muscular fibres are cut and open”.

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