Just a sprinkle can make all the difference.

By Stacey Ballis
January 07, 2020
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We are always looking for that next super-secret ingredient that can take our recipes to the next level—especially in baking, where so many recipes follow a basic set of flavor profiles.

Anytime someone shares a secret about how to amp up flavor or bring a little something extra special to the party, I get insanely excited.

Whether it is adding instant espresso powder to chocolate desserts to make them taste extra chocolately, almond extract to coffee desserts to make them taste more intensely of coffee, or lemon zest to fruit desserts to bring out a fuller fruit flavor, a dash of certain elements can make all the difference.

When a pastry chef pal said she sneaks a hint of cinnamon into caramel desserts to boost the caramel flavor, I immediately adopted it as my standard. And even in savory cooking, if I am making any type of cream sauce, from bechamel to mac and cheese, I’ll add the merest scrape or two of nutmeg.

When looking at baking recipes, even if they don’t call for a pinch of salt, I add it, because salt brings out sweetness. If you don’t believe me, the next time you buy a disappointingly bland melon, give it a light sprinkle of salt and see if it doesn’t taste better.

In savory recipes, salt and pepper are like conjoined twins; nearly every recipe I read or write has the phrase “season to taste with salt and pepper” in it somewhere. And every baking recipe I make has salt in it.

Which made me wonder, what about pepper in baking?

Turns out, pepper is your new secret weapon!

Firstly, the recipes that benefit the most from the addition of pepper are ones that already have an element of spiciness. Anything that has ginger, cardamom, allspice, cinnamon, or clove—like Chai-Spiced Snickerdoodles—can get a nice little boost from pepper.

Chocolate loves fruity peppers like cayenne, espelette, or Aleppo. Ginger and spice like white pepper. Berries like pink peppercorns, and stone fruit is pals with grains of paradise, an ancient pepper that has great floral and citrus notes. Vanilla and caramel love some regular old black pepper.

From ice creams and sauces to pastries, cookies and brownies, frostings and confectionary, cakes, tarts, and pies can all get a boost from a judicious amount of pepper. You can even experiment with exotics like Szechuan peppercorns or long pepper or cubeb or comet tail peppers.

Pepper can be a wonderful addition to jams and preserves, as well as dessert sauces. Even if you don’t make these from scratch, try stirring in a little extra something to store-bought caramel or fudge sauce or your favorite fruit jam and see how they sing!

When adding pepper to sweets, the key is to start with a little and add as necessary—and to use a finely ground pepper instead of the coarse grind that is preferable for savory recipes. As little as a pinch or a quarter of a teaspoon can add some surprising backbone to a bake. The easiest place to start is with a simple project like a gingerbread or molasses cookie, which can stand up to a bit of extra spice, and if you like it, keep playing!