True red peppercorns are rare even in the lush, monsoon drenched equatorial regions where the piper nigrum vine flourishes—and in the past, if you found them on a spice merchant’s shelf, they were likely to be pickled or brined.
But all that’s changing with the introduction of freeze-dried red peppercorns. The flavor is extraordinary: sweet and fruity, with a sunny warmth that builds to a spicy crescendo.
Trouble is, you’d never recognize them without the label on the spice can.
- Family: Piperaceae
- Botanical Name: Piper nigrum
True red peppercorns are the fully ripe fruit of the piper nigrum vine from which black, white and green peppercorns also come. (The differences in color, flavor and aroma are due to different harvesting times and processing methods.) Red peppercorns are left on the vine to soak up the sun until the berries are mature. Just as they turn yellow and red, they are plucked by hand.
Ripe red peppercorns are very fragile. Although fresh clusters are occasionally found in the markets in Kerala and other pepper-growing regions, most ripe pepper berries are immediately brined and sealed in jars. Attempts at drying ripe peppercorns have been unsuccessful: The husks are so papery that they are difficult to use in the kitchen.
Freeze dried red peppercorns have a papery husk and even though the inner core is firm, they don’t grind well in any sort of peppermill. Instead, crush them in a mortar and pestle or gently smash them in a plastic ziplock bag with a hammer or rolling pin,
Sweet red peppercorns are wonderful with briny fresh shellfish, such as shrimp or lobster and some citrus, such as oranges, clementines and tangerines. I love to marinate raw shrimp in crushed red peppercorns, then sautee them with clementine sections, shredded ginger and toasted walnuts. The dish has a marvelous interplay of sweet and spicy flavors which is offset by the rich, crunchy nuts.