#TasteZen Pepper Tasting 101

#TasteZen Pepper Tasting 101

With no shortage of places to get black peppercorns (or white and red for that matter), it’s important to understand quality and flavor when it comes to selecting and using fresh cracked pepper in your food.  Just like wine or coffee, pepper (actually being a fruit) should be paired with foods that it complements well. So how do you know what goes well with which food? You can start by conducting your own pepper tasting - similar to tasting and pairing wine with food.

At Zen, we’ve found it difficult to find helpful tips on the internet when it comes to pepper tasting. As a company that prides ourselves on traveling the world in search of premium products, it was difficult in the beginning to determine exactly what premium taste was. We learned the hard way - But because of that, we’ve been able to combine some commonly suggested methods with our own to come up with a straightforward way to determine what your pepper palate preference is.

First word of advice - don’t try tasting pepper (or any other spice) straight, as it very quickly leads to the fatigue of the palate.  Plan to use either plain white bread pieces or warm steamed white rice. In our tasting sessions, we use Thai sticky rice (typically sold as “sweet” rice) steamed in a bamboo basket.  Using a bland starchy food like rice or bread not only makes tasting easier, but it helps determine how the pepper differences will showcase themselves when eaten with more flavorful foods.

You may want to try comparing your Zen pepper to other brands, to include regular low cost off-the-shelf pepper from your local grocery store.  In fact, we highly recommend you do, as we believe you’ll really appreciate the difference that Zen provides in the taste, quality and aroma of our pepper.

Before setting out on your tasting adventure, there are some criteria to keep in mind for evaluating the quality of peppercorns and their specific flavor differences.

First, look for general signs of quality:

  • The peppercorns should have a generally uniform size and color.  Assortments of grey, black, speckled or other types of color mismatch usually signify a low-quality product, handled with a lack of regard for care. These peppercorns are likely to be less consistent in flavor.
  • The darker the black peppercorn, the more robust the flavor. Note: this does not mean that white pepper is less robust than black pepper. This rule applies exclusively to black pepper.

Next, there are some characteristics to look for during your actual pepper tasting:

  • Acidity
  • Sweetness
  • Flavor (pepper notes tend to be either fruity, earthy, or a combination thereof - much like coffee)

And lastly, check the texture and firmness – do the peppercorns easily crumble or remain pretty solid?  Fresh pepper will remain firm and not crumble easily (that’s the job of the grinder!)

With these criteria in mind, prepare to take notes on the flavors and aromas of your pepper.  Follow these steps and record your notes for each of the pepper in your tasting session:

  1. Grind a small amount (no more than ½ teaspoon) of peppercorns just prior to tasting it.  Pepper is best when it is freshly ground. The fresher the grind, the more the flavor profile will appear.
  2. Take a small ball of warm rice (or piece of bread) and press it into the ground pepper.  You should have no more than approximately 1/8 of a teaspoon to taste.
  3. Taste the pepper, looking for the heat, acidity, sweetness and flavor nuances.

Use your tasting notes to determine what levels of flavor, acidity and pungency you prefer.  Then pair the pepper with your favorite foods that have similar tasting characteristics. Not surprisingly, many herbs and spices share the same aroma compounds as wine, so if you happen to be a connoisseur of the grape, use what you know to help describe the taste nuances. An example is matching a black pepper with Syrah; both wine and spice contain the spicy-but-floral compound called rotundone. When you match like flavors together they tend to magnify each other. This type of pairing is called a congruent pairing and it’s the theory behind matching wine with spices and herbs. Following are some suggestions for use of the various Zen peppercorns:

Kampot Black Pepper:  Pair this with any red meat or check out our recipe for the Cambodian Kampot Pepper Crab.

Phu Quoc Black Pepper:  Pair this with most Pho’ dishes or fried noodle dishes.  It also couples well with grilled chicken marinated in a mixture of soy sauce, fish sauce and lime.

Chantaburi Black Pepper:  Pair this your go-to Thai dishes to include Pad Thai, Curries, or fried rice dishes.  It makes for an awesome peppercorn encrusted grilled steak as well.

Kampot Red Pepper:  Kampot Red is hotter (spicier) than its black and white counterparts.  It is recommended that you should use it on dishes like duck, pork, or seafood.  

Kampot White Pepper:  This is a great pepper paired with any seafood dish.  Try it on shrimp or a mild white fish.


Above all, get creative! Part of exploring this new world of pepper, is figuring out what tasting notes and pairing recommendations you come up with. 


Cooking tips with peppercorns:

  1. Toast your peppercorns in a dry (preferably cast iron) pan. This will help release the true flavors of the pepper.
  2. In standard recipes, avoid adding ground pepper until the end of the cooking process so the flavor and pungency is maintained.
  3. When cooking a recipe using large amounts of pepper over high heat, be aware that smoke from the peppered food can cause irritation, so be sure you have proper ventilation.