White Pepper vs. Black Pepper: What's the Difference?

Black and white pepper come from the same plant, Piper nigrum. So what's the difference? Read on to learn more about their flavor profiles and when to use which.  

a collage with white pepper and black pepper in bowls
Photo: Getty Images

Widely used in cuisines around the world, peppercorns' roots are traceable to South India. Tellicherry peppercorns, grown in Thalassery, a city on the Malabar coast of Kerala, are considered some of the finest peppercorns in the world. Both black and white peppercorns are small dried berries from the same vine. The difference lies in when the berries are harvested and how they are processed.

What is black pepper?

Black peppercorn berries are picked while still green. They are allowed to ferment, and are then sun-dried until they shrivel and turn a brownish-black color, which is why the texture of black peppercorns is crinkly.

What is white pepper?

White pepper comes from berries that are picked at full ripeness. The berries are soaked in water to ferment, and then the outer layer is removed, leaving only the inner, light-colored seed. This is why the texture of white peppercorns is smooth compared to that of black peppercorns.

How do they differ?

Aside from the way they are produced, black and white peppers differ significantly in flavor. Black pepper imparts a spicy, piquant undertone to foods. It is bold and floral. Black pepper can make your mouth tingle! White pepper is generally milder in heat compared to black pepper. It is grassy and more earthy.

How do I use black pepper?

Black pepper is a ubiquitous kitchen staple: It adds flavor and kick to meats, fish, vegetables, sauces, soups, condiments and more. Think spice mixtures, spice rubs, marinades. It's the central ingredient in Roman cacio e pepeand Singaporean pepper crab. Black pepper is also widely used to encrust and preserve meats.

How do I use white pepper?

White pepper is very common in Asian cuisines, Vietnamese and Chinese especially. It adds an aromatic spiciness to sautéed seafood or stir-fried meat. In the French culinary tradition, white pepper is used for aesthetic reasons in addition to its use for flavor. Chefs use white pepper to season mashed potatoes or a béchamel—no black specks!

Can I swap one for the other?

For small quantities, yes. In other instances, no. For recipes that heavily include either black pepper (that chili crab) or white pepper, you'll want to stick with the type that's specified. The two peppers have distinct tastes and that difference will be noticeable.

How do I store whole and ground peppercorns?

Whole peppercorns hold their freshness and flavor longer than ground pepper. When stored in a sealed container in a cool, dry place, peppercorns are good for two to four years, according to the USDA. In contrast, ground pepper is good for only two to three years. Although ground pepper is convenient, it's best bought in small quantities and replaced often. To make sure you get the freshest flavors from your peppercorns, make sure to incorporate them into your cooking as much as possible. Try not to let them languish in your pantry.

The bottom line

Pepper packs a punch! The choice to use black or white pepper depends on the flavor profile of the dish, the amount of pepper and the final look. Both should have a place in your pantry.

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