Ever wondered what the difference is between white pepper vs black pepper? Here are the differences between the two types of pepper, explained.
Written by: Lisa Lin & Diann Leo-Omine. Photos and video by Lisa Lin.
If you have been following along my cooking adventures with Mama Lin, you may have noticed that she uses white pepper often, especially when she’s cooking with seafood. Many of you probably have black pepper in your kitchens and you may have wondered whether you can use it in place of white pepper. The thing is, their flavor profiles are quite different. Here’s a quick primer on the differences between white pepper vs black pepper.
WHAT IS WHITE PEPPER?
White pepper is a quintessential ingredient in the Chinese pantry. In Chinese, white pepper is often referred to as 胡椒粉, which literally translates to “pepper powder.” See video below for pronunciations of 胡椒粉 in various Chinese dialects. It adds bright peppery flavor to a dish and it’s often used to season soups and porridges like egg drop soup or congee (jook). In southern Chinese cuisine, salt and (white) pepper is a common flavor combination. For example, you will often find salt and pepper shrimp or salt and pepper tofu in the menus of many Chinese restaurants.
White pepper is from the Piper nigrum variety of pepper plant. The peppercorns we get at the supermarket are the dried berries of the pepper plant. To make it confusing, black pepper comes from the exact same variety of pepper plant (as do green and red peppercorns). The difference between white pepper vs black pepper lies in how the peppercorns are processed.
WHITE PEPPER VS BLACK PEPPER
White pepper berries are fully ripened when they are picked. The berries are then soaked in water and fermented. This fermenting process gives the white peppercorns a distinct pungent and bright floral flavor. Once fermented, the peppercorns are dried and the outer layer of the peppercorn is removed. To me, white pepper tastes spicier; I feel as if the heat hits my tongue quicker than black pepper. However, some sources say that black pepper is spicier.
In contrast, black pepper berries are picked when they aren’t ripe. The unripe berries are dried, and blackened in this process of drying. If you look closely at a black peppercorn, you can see the wrinkles on the surface of the berry.
CAN YOU SUBSTITUTE WHITE PEPPER WITH BLACK PEPPER?
Yes and no. If the recipe calls for a scant amount of pepper, then go ahead and use black pepper. However, if you are cooking a dish like my salt and pepper tofu, where white pepper is a key flavor in the dish, the substitution isn’t recommended.
BUYING AND STORING WHITE PEPPER
You can buy whole white peppercorns and ground white pepper at your local grocery store or Asian market. If you’re buying a Chinese or Taiwanese brand of white pepper, they can be labeled as 胡椒粉 (“pepper powder”) or 白胡椒粉 (“white pepper powder). In the Sacramento area, the Sacramento Co-op, Allspicery, Nugget Market, Raley’s, and Safeway carry it.
I keep both whole peppercorns and ground pepper in my pantry. I buy ground white pepper for convenience. It’s easy for me to grab the bottle and easily shake a few dashes of white pepper into my stir fries. However, if you don’t think you’ll use white pepper often, I recommend buying whole peppercorns and grinding a small amount as you go. Store both types of pepper in a cool, dry place.
RECIPES USING WHITE PEPPER
- Basic Congee Recipe – Chinese Rice Porridge (Jook/粥)
- Vegan Congee Recipe (Jook/Chinese Rice Porridge)
- The Easiest Egg Fried Rice (20 Minutes)