This Surprising Ingredient Will Give Your Gingerbread Cookies A Kick

Gingerbread cookies are traditionally associated with Christmas and the winter season in general, with their spices — usually a mix of, of course, ginger, plus others such as cinnamon and clove (via Food & Wine) — providing a warming comfort during those cold days and nights. Delicious alongside a hot cup of coffee or a cold glass of eggnog, they're one of the most classic holiday cookies and a wonderful treat at any time of year.

Gingerbread cookies can contain a wide variety of flavorings, with some recipes calling for more unusual inclusions, such as cardamom, allspice, or even cocoa powder. But have you ever heard of adding black pepper — typically a spice we think of grinding over hot pasta and other savory dishes — to ginger cookies? That's the secret ingredient Nik Sharma, a food writer, photographer, and author of "The Flavor Equation," relies upon to bring a bit of heat to his favorite gingersnap recipe. As Sharma wrote in his This Is A Cook-Letter newsletter, his gingersnaps call for three types of ginger — ground dried, grated fresh, and crystallized — and those three flavors need something to unify them. Enter: black pepper.

Why add black pepper to ginger cookies?

Black pepper is a fragrant, robust, and even hot spice that many of us rely on to bring flavor to our savory dishes. But what benefits does it bring to a dessert like ginger cookies? In his newsletter, food writer Nik Sharma explains that the spice's heat and aroma "hold up really nicely to sweetness," and gingerbread cookies are definitely sweet, typically calling for molasses, brown sugar, or both. Additionally, Sharma writes, the spiciness of black pepper complements the heat of the three forms of ginger in his cookies, helping to tie them together into one cohesive flavor.

Food & Wine's gingerbread cookies also call for black pepper alongside ground ginger, cinnamon, and cloves. As with any recipe calling for black pepper, if you're going to bake with the spice, make sure the pepper is fresh in order to get the widest spectrum of flavors from it. Sharma notes in his newsletter that black pepper owes much of its bold flavor to a chemical called piperine, which loses its pungency over time and which also degrades with exposure to light and heat. So for the best, spiciest gingerbread cookies, store whole peppercorns in a cool, dark spot in your kitchen — and grind them fresh at the time of baking.