At one point in history, black pepper was held in such high esteem that it was more expensive than gold. The price was mostly to do with its rarity, as the places where it was grown were difficult to get to from Europe. In fact, the search for what is sometimes called the king of spices was what fueled the Columbus voyages to the new world. Today, the spice is no longer as rare or expensive as it once was but still retains a high level of popularity. Black pepper can be found in most spice racks in America as well as on a large number of our dinner tables where it resides alongside salt.
If you find yourself out of black pepper or are cooking for someone who is sensitive to it, there are several other spices that you can use in its place.
Your best bet: A white pepper and cayenne pepper mix
White pepper is made from the internal part of the black peppercorn so it has much of the same flavor though it may be lacking in some of the complexity that comes from whole black pepper. You can get much of that complexity back with the addition of cayenne pepper. When combining these two spices as a substitute for a 1/2 teaspoon of black pepper, use 1/2 teaspoon of white pepper and 1/8 teaspoon of cayenne.
A decent second choice: Green peppercorns
Both black and green peppercorns come from the piper nigrum vine. The difference is that the peppercorns are harvested at different growth stages. The green peppercorns are harvested before they ripen and are preserved while the black ones are left on the vine until they mature and then are dried. Green peppercorns are most often sold in brine which gives them a longer shelf life. When purchased in their dried form, they are highly perishable and must be used quickly. Green peppercorns in brine may be used in place of black peppercorns for cooking steak or in sauces. Three tablespoons of green peppercorns is the equivalent to 1 oz of black peppercorns. Dried green peppercorns may be ground and used as a 1:1 substitute for black pepper.
In a pinch: Papaya seeds
The seeds of the papaya are like a very spicy caper when you first remove them from the fruit; however, their flavor is almost identical to that of black pepper if dried and ground. Simply scoop them out of the papaya and leave them soaking overnight before baking them at a low temperature until they are hard. At that point, you can grind them and use them exactly as you would use black pepper.
Chief among your other options is the West African spice known as grains of paradise. This spice is a member of the ginger family and has a strong pepper-like flavor with notes of citrus and cardamom. Capers are another good alternative as they have a peppery taste and can be used in place of peppercorns in some recipes. Pink peppercorns are not a member of the pepper family but have a similar shape and size as black peppercorns. They too have a peppery taste and are less noticeable in lighter colored sauces than black pepper would be.