The chef shares her spice secrets, including a peppery take on pineapple upside-down cake.
If your spice cabinet is stocked with the standard grocery store assortment of commonly-used jars and shakers, there’s a good chance you’ve got some black peppercorns, rainbow peppercorns, or even just some pre-ground black pepper at the ready. But, of course, black pepper isn’t the only one in the game. Pink peppercorns and white peppercorns are equally powerful and purposeful in their own applications. Chef Alex Guarnaschelli focused on peppercorns and other spices while demonstrating recipes at the 2018 Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. Here’s her advice on when, how, and why to use each kind.
First off, for any color, Guarnaschelli says to get them whole and crush them as you need them (she suggests using the bottom of a large skillet to do so) for the best flavor.
Black peppercorns are ideal for meat, in fact in some French restaurants that eschew black pepper in dishes altogether, it’s still found at the meat station. Guarnaschelli thinks black peppercorns should be given their fair shake. “Black peppercorns have this amazing heat to them that you don’t realize.” When crushed coarsely, they’re also great for texture and “not just a flavor bomb,” like in a steak au poivre. And don’t just be content with whatever the supermarket sells you. Guarnaschelli reminds us that there’s a bevy of black peppercorn options. She suggests shopping online for small jars at a shop like The Meadow, where you can discover the whole range from super spicy to floral and mellow.
“White pepper is for when you want to hide your labor trail,” Guarnaschelli says. Dishes like mashed potatoes, anything with a bechamel, and clear things like soups or a vinaigrette might look a bit better without black pepper flecks. "I worked for a French kitchen for seven years in Paris. You were not allowed to use garlic, chilis or any black pepper… because you can see it.” She says white pepper is ideal for things that are a little more subtle in intensity, as well.
Pink peppercorns are interchangeable with black and white (though you’ll see them if you’re swapping for white) and give a pop of color as well. While pink is attractive, it has a rather pungent center inside the hull, so “don’t be seduced by the beauty,” Guarnaschelli warns. Use it sparingly. While it’s perfectly appropriate for savory dishes, the chef has added it to an unexpected recipe: pineapple upside-down cake. A few pink peppercorns are added to both the sugar and butter mixture that the pineapples are cooked in and more to the caramel sauce used to top off the cake after flipping it out of the skillet. You can find that recipe her latest book The Home Cook: Recipes to Know by Heart, available now.