Salt is a necessity in every recipe. Black pepper is not. Here’s why

Gird your loins, cooking purists: I’ve got something to say! (read this like Jerri Blank would say in “Strangers With Candy”).

I don’t like using black pepper and don’t often include it in my cooking. In my recipes, when I say to “season,” I mean with kosher salt. Or, in some instances, with paprika, garlic powder, onion, powder or something along those lines not black pepper. 

Now, don’t get me wrong — freshly ground black pepper most certainly has a place in particular dishes; I love it on a green, heavily-dressed salad (especially when it’s being ground from a big ol’ peppermill at a restaurant!) and it’s also necessary in pasta dishes like carbonara or cacio e pepe. It can also be used in seasonings and rubs for various proteins and my fraternal grandmother used to douse her cooked green beans in oil and black pepper. There’s also a place for it in dishes like lemon-pepper wings, Chinese-American salt and pepper shrimp, certain cayenne or cajun dishes, black pepper beef and so on and so forth.

However, it shouldn’t be looked at as a partner for salt, per se. Salt is essentially required in quite literally every dish, both savory and sweet: it emboldens latent flavors and brings more subtle notes to the forefront, it awakens your taste buds, it whets your appetite and gets you prepared for more. I could wax poetic about salt for days. But pepper is a different component altogether.

As Anne Burrell has stated in many instances, salt is a non-negotiable whereas pepper is more of a selective spice. Salt is a necessity, pepper is an elective. Burrell once described how you wouldn’t use, for example, ground cumin in every single dish you make. She said something similar about pepper it has a place, by no means, but it doesn’t need to be inextricably linked with salt in every single cooking preparation. 

In her 2013 book “Own Your Kitchen: Recipes to Inspire & Empower: A Cookbook,” Burrell writes “salt and pepper are not married, they’re only dating. Salt and pepper do not serve the same function so they don’t need to be used together. I’m not a gratuitous pepper girl I use pepper as an ingredient” and also “Pepper adds an entirely different flavor to food. I would never think of adding salt and horseradish to everything! It’s the same with pepper.”

She also echoed this point repeatedly on her show “Secrets of a Restaurant Chef,” which I used to watch with fervor.

When I’m cooking for a crowd, I will season chicken breasts with salt and pepper just so that the flavor profile isn’t entirely missing for those who are so used to it, but when cooking for myself or my own family, I rarely reach for black pepper at all. 

The bulk of my cooking is seen through an Italian-American lens. I’d argue that black pepper is used a bit more sparingly in Italian and Italian-American food than other cuisines, so I also do wonder if that’s another component that factors into my ambivalence towards pepper.

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In some instances, like a Bechamel-based sauce, I actually like using a ground white pepper, which has a softer, subtler note than the sometimes acrid black pepper.  Mind you, I’m very sensitive to “spice” (my brother always makes fun of me for not liking black pepper), so that sharp black pepper note isn’t something I really enjoy. In some instances, though, I might also use red pepper flakes to approximate a flavor with a bit more “oopmh.”

Another important note is the grind itself. Crunching into a half-ground black peppercorn is a profoundly unpleasant scenario which has occurred many a time for me and then essentially blown out my palate.

In this Bon Appetit piece from 2019, Molly Baz argues that “everything you cook needs salt. But pepper? Not so much” She writes, “In a nutshell: Salt makes food taste more like itself; black pepper makes food taste like black pepper.” I couldn’t agree more with this sentiment. 

In this 2016 Epicurious article, Anya Hoffman writes that “[pepper’s] bitter bite and strong aroma don’t enhance every dish the salt does. In fact, the two seasonings have opposite effects: Salt is more likely to coax out flavors from foods, whereas black pepper is more likely to overshadow them.” Hofman also includes a quote from Chef Dan Ross-Leutwyler who calls black pepper a “brute-force instrument that makes everything taste the same.” For the pepper stalwarts, this might be a bit harsh.

For me? I concur entirely. 

Think about it this way, too: Almost all desserts call for salt. When is the last time you bit into a cookie and thought “mmm, I love the black pepper notes in this! It complements the chocolate so well”? The answer, I would hope, is never. So when you’re making dinner later, contemplate if your dish needs that pepper. It needs the salt, no question. But that pepper is more of a “here and there,” sparingly-used type spice, not an everyday seasoning tool. 

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