What's wrong with my Szechuan peppercorns?
December 23, 2008 2:18 PM   Subscribe

What's wrong with my Szechuan peppercorns?

I'm not a terribly experienced cook, and my experience making Asian dishes is virtually nil. But a few nights ago I followed a pretty straightforward recipe that called for some Szechuan peppers. I had a jar in the pantry that was maybe 2 months old, and I ground them myself.

Somehing about the flavor seemed...off. I was expecting a tingly heat, what I got was a muddy floral taste that I can't get out of my mind (and not in a good way). I've had dishes with Szechuan pepper in Chinese restaurants and loved the taste.

What's the problem here? Did they go bad? Is this really what Szechwan peppers taste like?
posted by motherly corn to Food & Drink (5 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
They dont really give off a heat, they imbue more of a piney flavor. It shouldn't taste muddy, but it should be distinct. I do not grind mine, but but I do dry roast them on occasion.

Try them whole, and also try roasting them.

Also, if you have tried them in China they will taste somewhat different over there, due to pasteurization needed before export.
posted by BobbyDigital at 2:41 PM on December 23, 2008

Most recipes (well, Kylie Kwong recipes) I've seen involving Szechuan peppercorns involve roasting them, then grinding them and mixing them with salt. Maybe that's what the restaurants are doing?

After roasting, they do have a sort of hot, piney flavor. And they smell suspiciously like Colonel Sander's 11 secret herbs and spices.
posted by ignignokt at 3:29 PM on December 23, 2008

Best answer: Seconding the comments regarding heat (not much) and flavor (sort of piney). The heat in Szechuan dishes comes from chili peppers, black pepper, or various condiments that contain chili pepper. The Szechuan peppercorns contribute flavor, but not much in the way of heat.

I've found enormous variation from brand to brand with Szechuan peppercorns. The cheap stuff contains not only bits of twig but also the black seeds, while the better grades only contain the husks (sepals? the seed covers) which is where the flavor is. The husks are dark red and sort of prickly outside, and creamy yellow inside. If you toast them yourself be careful, as they burn quickly.

It's a time-consuming hassle to pick through the whole peppercorns and discard the twigs and seeds, then toast them and grind them, so I use preground Szechuan pepper (it's not as pungent as fresh, but I'm not terribly keen on the flavor so I don't mind a little less of it). The best stuff I've found is confusingly labelled "Red Pepper Powder" (it's not red chili pepper at all), Wu Hsing brand from Taipei, Taiwan. It's packaged in the exact same small glass bottles that you commonly find supermarket spices in, complete with the sea-green cap. The label is pink with a white and blue border. I found it in a well-stocked Chinese/Southeast Asian grocery store in the spice section.

As to what might be wrong with your peppercorns, they might be poor quality (lots of black seeds contaminating the husks), or maybe you didn't toast them. Actually, "muddy floral" might be a fair description of the taste of perfectly good Szechuan pepper, given the difficulties in describing unfamiliar flavors, so your peppercorns might be fine after all, but you were expecting the flavors that come from the magic Szechuan blend of hot bean paste + other seasonings. A typical dish contains just a dash or two of Szechuan pepper, not enough to dominate the other flavors, so another possibility is that your recipe just called for too much.
posted by Quietgal at 5:01 PM on December 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I didn't toast them, which might have been a problem, but after reading these comments I suspect that the peppercorns were actually fine and this is the taste (piney is exactly right) that I should expect from them. I think I always associated the heat in Szechuan food with the peppercorns, so that was what I was expecting, but from what Quietgal said this really isn't the case. I also wonder if the recipe called for too much, because the flavor really dominated. Thanks for the answers!
posted by motherly corn at 7:30 PM on December 23, 2008

That is what they really taste like! Numbing! I usually remove them after I've cooked with them.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 10:49 PM on December 23, 2008

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