This post follows on from my recent article about adulteration of herbs and spices. Pepper accounts for about a quarter of the world’s spice trade and not surprisingly has attracted some pretty unsavoury producers over the years.
Black pepper and white pepper are harvested from the same plant. Black pepper is harvested when the berries are immature and still green. As they dry in the sun, they turn black.
Berries left on the vine turn from green to red as they mature. White pepper is harvested when the mature berries begin to turn red. They are soaked in water for a few weeks which softens the red outer skin. The berries are then rubbed together to rub off the soft outer skin. When the berries are washed and dried in the sun, the berries dry to a light buff colour. The characteristic odour of white pepper is slightly musty and mouldy due to the period of soaking. This characteristic odour is descriptive of true white pepper.
An alternative unscrupulous method of producing a ground pepper that is white in colour is to start with black pepper. Certain varieties of black pepper can have their black outer shells mechanically abraded. In essence the idea is to scrape off the black outer shell and leave the whiter coloured inner part of the berry intact. This decorticated black pepper can then be ground and sold as white pepper.
Typically, true white pepper sells for about a 50% premium over black pepper because true white pepper is lower yielding and costs more to produce as it requires more processing. However, the production of a white decorticated black pepper is typically not ﬁnancially advantageous unless the processor also has an outlet for the left over black pepper shells. The obvious outlet for these shells is to put them into ground black pepper. The spice processor willing to do this ends up both supplying a mislabeled white pepper and dilutes the ﬂavour of the black pepper since the shells contain nearly no black pepper ﬂavour.
We all invariably use a lot more black pepper than white pepper. My advice, therefore, is to always buy whole black peppercorns and grind them yourself and, if you do use white pepper, buy organic to make sure you are getting the real deal.