Do you love black pepper ? Do you love how absolutely peppery and sharp its flavor can get ? Oh it’s spicy, alright, and when it hits it’s really hard to miss. You can easily overdo pepper, especially if it’s freshly ground black pepper.
But what makes pepper so peppery ? After all, it’s not made of peppers, but does it have capsaicin ? If yes, why ? And if no, what else can make food spicy ? Let’s take a look.
Does black pepper have capsaicin ?
No, black pepper does not have capsaicin. Peppercorns are different from chili peppers, despite sharing similar names. Pepper has piperine, a naturally occurring compound named exactly after peppercorns.
Capsaicin is unique to chili peppers and its close siblings, and is not found in anything else. Both capsaicin and piperine burn the tongue in similar ways, but they hit very differently.
Pepper and salt are pretty much the love of the West, there is no kitchen without. But it’s not so much for adding heat, but more for the general flavor of pepper and peppercorns.
Piperine is an immediate hit, can get bitter
Piperine works differently from capsaicin, so that’s one way to tell them apart if you’re not sure what you’re eating. If you feel heat immediately after the first bite, and it feels more concentrated in the mouth and on the tongue, it’s pepper.
Careful with pepper though, if you add too much you’ll overpower the dish. Not only with the other flavors get muted, everything will become a little bitter.
You may also smell pepper, especially if it’s freshly ground. It will taste pungent, a little spicy and musky, and it may or may not make you sneeze. If it’s a very well ground pepper, it can float in the air and make you sneeze your eyes out.
Capsaicin has a slower buildup with a more intense spice
Capsaicin works as more of a whole body experience. Capsaicin takes a while to build up, and just as much to wind down. You won’t feel much in the first 2-3 bites. But as you eta, it starts to amp up.
It’s a different kind of heat. In fact, it’s more of a ‘heat’ than a ‘sting’ like pepper does. You feel capsaicin not only on the tongue, but in your body all over. And it’s almost never bitter, unless you really add way too much.
In short, capsaicin seems to work better than pepper in some dishes. It’s more of an all-encompassing heat than a frontal hit of spice. Both work well together, and if you add something like lime or lemon juice you get an even hotter spice.
Does milk help with pepper ?
Yes, the fats in milk might help with toning down pepper. That being said, freshly ground pepper is hard to combat, as piperine is very strong when its freshly ground.
Piperine is an alkaloid, and it gets extracted by acids. So acidic food or drink won’t help. This means no drinking anything carbonated like soda, club soda, cider, or beer if you want to calm down pepper.
You can however try washing it all down to a glass of regular plain water, and see if that helps. The reason capsaicin can be washed down with milk is because it dissolves in fats or alcohol.
But piperine needs to evaporate, which makes it more volatile and thus could possibly work with just water.
If you like the flavor of pepper, add it after cooking
For those who absolutely love the flavor of pepper, nevermind the heat, you should add it near the end. This is because as you cook pepper, ground or whole, it loses its flavor and subtle notes. It is not one of those spices that gets better as it sits, like a curry mix for example.
So, if you want flavor, add whole peppercorns and add then near the end. If you want the spice too, grind the corns and add them after you’re done cooking. Remember, these can overpower a meal so use a light touch.
If you’d like to explore the flavor a bit more, try using green peppercorns. These are just fresh peppercorns, that haven’t dried out and turned to black peppercorns yet. Yep, fresh pepper is green pepper.
The upside is that is much softer, and can actually be chewed ! It also makes a nice sauce, a bit similar to capers.
Don’t overdo pepper, especially freshly ground
We know we’ve said this before, but please be careful when adding freshly ground pepper. It’s really strong and if you only need a dash, only twist the mill once.
It might sound like a little but you really only need a little. If you’re making a traditional carbonara for example, you need to add a bit more pepper but if you add too much you won’t even taste the guanciale !
If you’ve got any other food curiosities be sure to check the related articles below, we’re always adding more food facts to make your life that much easier.