White vs black pepper: what's the difference?

I’ve never in my life bought white pepper, but from time to time, it will turn up in a recipe I’m perusing, or I’ll see it used in a cooking show.

Sometimes, it’s pretty obvious that white pepper is used for aesthetic purposes, if the food is pale in color, and the cook wants to keep it that way. But I’ve also seen recipes that use both white and black, so it’s not always aesthetic.

So what’s the difference in the flavor profile?

If I encounter a recipe that calls for white pepper and I have everything else I need, but only have black pepper, what’s the harm in substituting? Or what’s the protocol for substituting?

I’ve tasted both (next to each other), and aside from the black being a little “sharper” (I hate trying to describe flavors), they’re pretty darn similar. I’m sure I couldn’t tell them apart in food unless it was hellaciously peppered (something like pepper-encrusting or pepper-vodka), and maybe not even that without seeing.

I think it’s most just for the aesthetics, or maybe tradition. I’d certainly sub them 1:1 for each other if I needed to – most foods aren’t terribly picky about the exact amount of pepper in them, anyway, as you can tell by the cavalier way those TV chefs toss it in – it’s not a chemical necessity like baking soda or somesuch.

White pepper, at least the kinds I’ve had, seems to have a certain scent that is distinctly different than black pepper. I can smell white pepper a mile away. It’s kind of the “essence” of the pepper smell, and it’s a bit foul-smelling to me. Black pepper has more fruity overtones and a pleasant earthiness. I love the scent and taste of freshly ground black pepper. I can’t respond with quite the same enthusiasm as to white pepper. While I do use both for aesthetic reasons, I prefer black pepper in most applications. It just tastes and smells a hell of a lot better to me.

ETA: I just got out the jar of white pepper and am smelling it. It’s got a definite barnyard funk to it that black pepper doesn’t have (or at least it’s covered up by the fruity and earthy smells in black pepper.)

Maybe not exactly what you’re asking, but they’re both the same plant, prepared different ways. The seed is covered with a green skin, and the skin is treated to ripen and becomes a black peppercorn. Otherwise, the skin is removed, and the white peppercorn inside is leftover.

You are correct in saying that wasn’t exactly what I was asking, but it’s the kind of thing I really like to know! Thanks!

Pulykamell and Timewinder, thanks for the input. I don’t suppose I’ll be in any hurry to obtain any white pepper any time soon!

I, too, love the flavor of fresh cracked black pepper. Some years back, when I bought our first pepper mill, hubby rolled his eyes at me. See, he had always thought of ‘fresh-ground’ pepper as an affectation. Once I had him do a taste-comparison, though, he was hooked!

To me, white pepper is a bit milder than black and doesn’t overwhelm a dish the way black pepper can sometimes. In general, I find I use white pepper a lot more than the black when cooking.

Actually, thinking about it I just really like the white a lot and I can’t say exactly why. I’ve never been very good at describing tastes. I would recommend, though, that you get a good quality whole white peppercorn from someplace like Penzey’s and grind it fresh if you want to try it out. I usually use the Muntok.

All I know is that Alton Brown only really uses it for its color, not its flavor.

Man, I find black pepper and white pepper are very different, enough so that I won’t substitute one for the other in most recipes. Maybe it’s the quality and freshness of the pepper - both are from Penzey’s and fresh ground around here. White pepper has a deeper, more earthy flavor to me, and as others mentioned, a distinct aroma. Black pepper is sharper and snappier.

If you’re buying the pre-ground stuff, maybe they mellow out and the difference is more subtle.

I clearly remember the first time I really used white pepper and noticed how different it was. I had just bought some, and was making a simple side-dish of black beans from a can. I threw in a fair bit of white pepper since it was the New Cool Spice in the house and WOW! I was blown away. I still put white pepper in black beans - it seems really different than black.

Please don’t be put off by my description of it. It’s not expensive, so give it a try. And, as Athena says, buy whole peppercorns and grind them yourself–it’s make a big difference. I certainly don’t dislike them, I just prefer black pepper for most things. (I thought of another exception: Thai food. I use white pepper in that.) But the aroma is, at least in my experience, quite distinct.

OK. Next time I’m in the larger supermarket I shop at, I’ll look for white peppercorns. I don’t have a grinder for them (I only have a mill for my black pepper), but I have a mortar and pestle.

That’s generally the reason. The flavor differences are minor (and can be due to the variety of pepper or where it’s grown), but sometimes you don’t want little black specks all over your food.

Bad 90s comic says:

White pepper be all like, “Uh, excuse me, miss.”

And black pepper be like, “Heeeeeey. Sup, baby girl?”

Maybe it’s just me, but I do taste kind of a big difference in the peppers. To me, white pepper is a steady heat in the background, and absolutely imperative in clam chowder. Black pepper kind of stands alone, doesn’t really ‘blend’. To me, white pepper actually seems stronger, and not something I’d really want to grind on top of something; I should try that sometime. But that might be just me.

I think white pepper works better in certain kinds of spice mixes because it seems (to me anyway) to blend a little more smoothly, and doesn’t overwhelm the mix to the degree that black pepper does. I feel it helps to boost other flavors instead of just being “peppery.”

That’s my experience also: white pepper blends with other ingredients to create an elusive, yet steady, heat; black pepper stands out. The heat that is present in hot and sour soup, for example, comes partly from white pepper–the soup is definitely hot, but why it is hot is difficult to explain unless you know that white pepper is one of the ingredients.

Well, you’re all certainly doing an admirable job of answering my question! Thanks! :slight_smile:

I agree - what a brilliant example of why a question to the Dope yields such a richer experience than simple Googling.

To me there is a definite flavor difference. Black pepper has a kind of fruitiness that white pepper doesn’t have. Black pepper goes well with red meat, while white pepper has a more neutral flavor that goes better with more delicately-flavored foods.

According to Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, the chemical in peppercorns that gives them their heat is called “piperine.” There are other flavor-producing chemicals called “pinene,” “sabinene,” “limonene,” “caryophyllene” and “linalool” that add citrusy, floral and warm notes. White and black pepper have about the same amount of piperine, but black pepper has more of the other flavor compounds. White pepper often has a couple of additional compounds that give it a musty flavor.

BTW, black pepper is made from unripe peppercorns, in which the the skins are left on and allowed to turn dark (due to enzyme action). White pepper is made from ripe peppercorns from which the skins are removed.

Has anyone tried pink pepper? I’ve heard that it adds a sweet taste.

Pink peppercorns are indeed a bit sweet and fruity. They are not from the same plant or genus that true peppercorns (Piper) are. I think they go very nicely mixed with some black and/or white peppercorns on a steak or roast.