Finding Substitutes for Black Pepper

Under normal circumstances, I would never advocate that a person attempt to find a substitute for the flavor of black pepper–or really, any other spice. They all taste unique, and substitutions do not happen on a one-to-one basis. However, when I discovered recently that I had developed an allergy to black pepper (which I still hope is some odd side-effect of being pregnant and will eventually go away), I found myself in the position to have to find something to take the place of that very commonly used spice in my cooking.

At first, this search was not very successful.

In Indian spice blends, like my house garam masala, I found that I could use some allspice instead of black pepper and have a satisfactory flavor and level of heat. The flavors of the two spices are in no way analogous, however, the level of “heat” that allspice registers on the tongue is of a similar caliber as the heat of black pepper, and so long as it is a spice blend containing at least four or five different flavors, it works fine.

As a stand-alone spice along with salt, however, allspice is not a very good substitute.

Then, in more of a “stand-alone” situation where I wanted the bite of black pepper, but didn’t want to hide it in a spice blend, I tried some of Penzey’s Aleppo Pepper flakes. Aleppo peppers are a slightly hot chile from Turkey, which combine a unique sweetness with just a little bit of a bite and very little heat. For some dishes, particularly foods that are Mediterannean in origin, Aleppo pepper flakes–pictured above–are a pretty good substute, though the sweetness of the chile is noticable and can throw off the flavor balance of some dishes.

Finally, a loyal reader, Mel, I believe, mentioned that I should try “Grains of Paradise,” a spice that was once used as a substitute for the more expensive black peppercorns back in the Middle Ages. She also said it was somewhat hard to find, however, with the Internet at my fingertips, I was not surprised to find it readily available from several online sources, including the one I bought some from–The Spice House, in Chicago. She mentioned that it was related to ginger, not black pepper, so both she and I were of the opinion that it might be a workable substitute.

I had heard of the spice, but had never run across it myself, so after ordering a jar of it, I decided to do a little research on it to see what gave it its flavor. So I let my fingers do the walking across the keyboard to my favorite source of knowledge on all things spicy: Gernot Katzer’s Spice Pages, and found a great deal of interesting and useful information.

Grains of Paradise, Aframomum melegueta, is a spice that is native to West Coast of Africa, and is particularly grown in Ghana. It is no longer very much used except in West African and North African cookery, though at one time, it was used as an inexpensive substitute for black pepper in Europe. None of the flavor constituents contain piperine, the substance that gives black pepper its flavor, so it is unlikely that I will have any sort of allergic reaction to this spice.

The spice consists of seeds, about the size of cardamom seeds, that grow together in a dried brown pod that also looks similar to a cardamom pod. The seeds, however, instead of being greyish black are reddish brown, until they are ground and then they are somewhat greyish, and very, very fragrant. (You can see them in the picture above.)

I was excited to try them when they came in yesterday, so I immediately tore open the box and opened the jar. Sprinkling a few out into my hand, I sniffed them, and discerned very little scent. When I first cracked a seed between my teeth, I was equally disappointed and wondered if I had gotten a shipment of very old, worn out spices, however, as I chewed the seed thoroughly up with my molars, a very distinctive fragrance and flavor was released.

What was it?

It tasted like a mixture of good dried ginger and black pepper. I popped another seed in my mouth, and kept chewing, and the flavor deepened. It definately had the black pepper sharpness teamed with the incomparable lingering scent of ginger.

I used it to sprinkle over my pollo ala plancha last night and was thrilled to discover that the flavor was very, very close to that of black pepper, with the ginger note only adding a welcome flowery scent to the dish.

It was great!

I think this will be my all-purpose pepper substitute from now on; I just need to order a new pepper mill to put it in!

Thank you, Mel!


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  1. Congratulations on finding a substitute and thanks for the interesting introduction to it! On the allergy issue, it’s true that your system goes a bit whacky when you are pregnant. One of my good friends had the exact opposite situation to yours: a thousand foods she was allergic to pre-baby all suddenly were fine when she was pregnant! Sadly, it only lasted while she was pregnant, each time going back to severe allergies after her two kids were born. Still, she gorged herself on strawberries in those 18 months!

    Comment by Meg — June 23, 2006 #

  2. Oh and another thing…

    Under normal circumstances, I would never advocate that a person attempt to find a substitute for the flavor of black pepper–or really, any other spice. They all taste unique, and substitutions do not happen on a one-to-one basis.

    This reminds me of one my pet peeves – celebrity chefs who recommend substituting parsley for coriander/cilantro. Okay, yes, they are both green. But that’s about all they have in common! UK cooking programs frequently have a chef telling the audience “And if you don’t have any coriander handy, that’s fine, just substitute parsley instead.” GRRR..

    Okay, rant over. Sorry!

    Comment by Meg — June 23, 2006 #

  3. I don’t know if you’ve tried this, but I’ve heard of using dried nasturtium seeds as a black pepper substitute.

    Comment by selena — June 23, 2006 #

  4. Barbara, what a wonderful discovery. I’d heard of Grains of Paradise but have not tried it. Now I will! And I do hope your black pepper allery passes; I can’t imagine having to give it up altogether.

    Comment by Lydia — June 23, 2006 #

  5. I’m so happy you found a substitute…I LOVE Black Pepper and would be very sad if I had to give it up.

    Good Luck!

    Comment by scotte — June 23, 2006 #

  6. I’m so glad you like it! I’ve noticed that it tends to sell out fairly frequently with some sellers, but fortunately, there are a fair number to choose from. 🙂

    Parsley for cilantro…I have no words.

    Comment by Mel — June 23, 2006 #

  7. That’s great news on finding a substitute, though in itself Grains of Paradise sounds awesome. But I’m a fiend for ginger and pepper, so the idea of the pre-combination of the two makes me go all woobly. 😀

    Comment by Jennifer — June 24, 2006 #

  8. I have never heard of using dried nasturtium seeds as pepper substitutes–when I grow nasturtium again next summer (it was such a cold spring, I forgot to plant the seeds this year), I will try it out then. I know that the green, still soft seeds, have been used, brined, as caper substitutes.


    Yeah, the practicing of suggesting a person use parsley for cilantro bugs me, too. They taste nothing alike. However, I know quite a few people who have an aversion to cilantro–to them it tastes like they put a bar of soap in their mouths–and for them, I would suggest that they either just not use it, or use something else. It won’t give the same flavor (which they are grateful for, I am sure) but it will serve the same purpose–as a green flavor enhancer at the end.

    I think folks who think cilantro tastes soapy have a genetic disposition to taste it that way, so strong is the aversion. It is weird.

    Thanks again, Mel!

    Jennifer–Grains of Paradise rock! I used it in the pasta sauce I made yesterday for pasta primavera (with snap peas, asparagus, fresh shiitakes, chard, baby squash, and local cherry tomatoes–oh, was it good), and it really added a great kick to the dish. It was great, and I was so happy to have it to use.

    Comment by Barbara — June 26, 2006 #

  9. “I think folks who think cilantro tastes soapy have a genetic disposition to taste it that way, so strong is the aversion. It is weird.”

    They do. 😉 It’s a single gene receptor I’d have to track down the information again to tell you what the name of it is and what else it affects in taste – but you’re right. It’s genetic.

    Comment by bastlynn — June 26, 2006 #

  10. Grains of Paradise are *wonderful*

    You may also want to do some research on cubebs and long pepper to see if they have piperine in them or not (or if you get over your allergy to black pepper, try them for their incredible flavor)!

    I’m pretty sure that both cubebs and long pepper are related to black pepper, but have hugely different tastes. Long pepper has some of the bite of black pepper, but also a very lovely smooth, sweet aroma and flavor. Cubebs look a lot like allspice, but is pungent and a little bit bitter.

    One of my *favorite* spice blends is a mixture of black pepper, long pepper, cubebs, grains of paradise and a little bit of cloves. It’s better added before, during or just after cooking than adding to room temp or cold food. Mixed with a bit of salt, it makes a really nice table seasoning.

    Comment by Magpie — June 27, 2006 #

  11. I have long pepper, and as I recall, Magpie, it has piperine in it. I love the flavor of it, but I don’t want to risk another allergic reaction! (Having the throat swell up is unpleasant!)

    Comment by Barbara — June 27, 2006 #

  12. I first tasted cilantro about 30 years ago at a Vietnamese restaurant.. It was as you described, soapy, medicinal altogether distasteful, and I am an exceptionally adventuresome eater..
    About 10 years ago, I had some again, and could not believe how delicious I now found it. I am addicted to it, and use it for Indian, Asian, South-Asian, and everything in between. Maybe taste buds neeed to mellow a bit with age?
    cheers, (like parsley… hah~~)

    Comment by Lyman — July 15, 2006 #

  13. Interesting, Lyman. I used to think it tasted sort of soapy, too, but not in a bad way. Just in a kinda soapy way. Now, it just tastes green, fresh and good.

    Maybe it is an acclimization thing?

    Comment by Barbara — July 17, 2006 #

  14. My parents used to pickle nasturtium seeds and use them as a substitute for capers. And of course they used the leaves in sandwiches sometimes–it tastes a little like watercress, quite hot, but has its own distinct flavor.

    Comment by Debbie — August 2, 2006 #

  15. we can supply Grains of Paradise in large volume.

    Comment by H.R.Ali — December 5, 2006 #

  16. You may enjoy “sea pepper,” which is related to psyllium. It is an ancient Celtic herb from Spain, and runs the gamut of piquancy…and summer savory, too.

    Comment by JOhn — December 27, 2006 #

  17. A question, really. My husband had to stop using pepper because of an ulcer. Would the Grains of Paradise contain whatever the ingredient is in papper that he can’t use? If you know.

    Comment by lynn huntsman — April 12, 2008 #

  18. Any type of pepper aggravates my wife’s colitis…black, white, chilis….Does anyone know where to buy sea pepper herb and seeds? I can find “water pepper,” but I know this is not the same thing…it is not related to psyllium at all. Thanks

    Comment by John Hayes — March 7, 2009 #

  19. Sometimes, we use Savory, the Italian and German pot-herb…but to use Sea Pepper like my Iberian Celtic ancestor would be very nice…my great uncles and aunts used to talk about it, but nobody had thought to bring seed to the US…HELP!

    Comment by John Hayes — March 10, 2009 #

  20. You might try a little Known spice from I think South America called Monkey Pod. Taste just like Black Pepper and has been known to be used by spice companies and a cheap substitude.

    Comment by Jim Palmer — August 3, 2011 #

  21. […] Tigers & Strawberries » Finding Substitutes for Black PepperJun 22, 2006 … Under normal circumstances, I would never advocate that a person attempt to find a substitute for the flavor of black pepper–or really, any other … […]

    Pingback by Peppercorn substitute | Heavenandearth — November 19, 2011 #

  22. I don’t normally comment on these things but I have something to contribute on cilantro: I find, without fail, that store-bought dried cilantro tastes like soap. Fresh cilantro, and home-dried cilantro, are among my very favorite herbs. Similarly, I think all store-bought dried parsley tastes like plastic, even when it comes in glass jars.

    Comment by Tony — June 4, 2012 #

  23. Just to let you know, when a person has arthritis, it is strongly advised to not use black pepper at all.

    Comment by Dori — July 8, 2012 #

  24. Just to let you know, when a person has arthritis, it is strongly advised to not use black pepper at all. I would like to see if anyone has a web site for Monkey Pod and Sea Pepper. Thanks!

    Comment by Dori — July 8, 2012 #

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