What Is Pepperoni Made Of? What You Should Know About the Beloved Pizza Topping

published Nov 15, 2023
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Credit: Joe Lingeman

Ask any American what their favorite pizza topping is, and they’re likely to respond with “pepperoni.” This cured sausage is, in fact, one of the most beloved toppings for pizza — and for good reason. Pepperoni is super flavorful and adds just the right amount of saltiness to a cheesy slice of pizza.

Quick Overview

What Is Pepperoni Made Of?

Pepperoni usually contains a different mix and ratio of ingredients, so its exact components vary. It is typically made from pork, and sometimes a mix of beef and pork, seasoned with a blend of spices, which may include paprika, calabrian chili pepper, cayenne pepper, crushed red pepper, garlic, fennel, mustard seeds or powder, and black pepper.

What makes pepperoni so popular, then? It’s simply salty, fatty, and flavorful, and it pairs well with cheese or other ingredients on a pizza. But have you thought about what pepperoni is made of? Pepperoni is made with a different mix and ratio of ingredients, but paprika, hot peppers, and spices are always present. 

What Is Pepperoni? 

Pepperoni is an Italian American creation that comes from traditional Italian salami. It is an air-dried, spicy pork sausage that has a finer grain, is usually softer in texture, and has a smoky and peppery taste. The sausage is typically very bright red due to the addition of different forms of peppers, including paprika. Pepperoni also contains seasonings, including salt, sugar, and spices.

Where Does the Word “Pepperoni” Come From? 

First, let’s explore the word “pepperoni.” Pepperoni is actually an American word borrowed from peperoni, the plural of peperone, the Italian word for bell pepper. 

When Italian immigrants came to the United States in the early 20th century, they couldn’t find salami — something close to what Italians might call salame piccante, a generic term that means “spicy salami.” So they brought their foods with them and started combining their southern European flavor traditions with American ingredients. 

The first reference to “pepperoni” in print is from 1919, according to food writer and historian John Mariani, as quoted in the New York Times, the period when pizzerias and Italian butcher shops began to flourish. Since then, pepperoni has become widely accepted as an Italian American food. 

How Is Pepperoni Made?

Using the right cuts of meat is crucial to obtain the correct meat-to-fat ratio. After the meat is trimmed, it is ground and then combined with seasonings, including salt, sugar, and spices. Sodium nitrate and lactic acid bacteria are added to maintain its freshness and lower the meat’s pH balance, respectively. Lowering the pH balance allows it to become better preserved for later consumption. 

Once everything is mixed, the meat is stuffed into paper-like fibrous casings, then fermented, smoked, and dried. Traditionally, they are placed in ovens to dry at a low temperature. From there, pepperoni is then moved to a drying room where it can stay for up to 20 days. After they have fully dried, the pepperoni is packaged and shipped. 

Every pepperoni maker creates their own combination of ingredients to produce the flavors they want, but paprika and hot peppers are always present; they give this sausage its bright red color. 

The proportion of meat and fat content, length of drying, and size (in diameter) are other factors for producers to consider when making pepperoni, says Marc Buzzio, co-owner of Salumeria Biellese, a delicatessen in New York City which has been run by the same family for three generations. 

How Does Pepperoni Differ from Salami? 

Pepperoni should not be confused with salami, a salted and air-dried sausage typically made from lean and fatty cuts of pork from the shoulder and back that are ground together, stuffed in a sausage casing, and then usually air-cured for a period of weeks or months, according to Brittanica

Pepperoni is usually used as a pizza topping, while salami is served cold as a salad spread or tucked in sandwiches. Pepperoni has a smoky and peppery taste, while salami has a spicy flavor. 

What Are the Styles of Pepperoni? 

There are three styles of pepperoni: traditional lay-flat, cup-and-char, and deli-style. 

  • Traditional lay-flat: When heated, it lays flat as if it’s ironed on. This style is popularly used at most pizzerias, including major national chains. 
  • Cup-and-char: This style, aka “roni cups” or “cupping” pepperoni, curls up into “cups” once it’s heated. Smaller in size yet thicker in texture, the edges crisp and get browned or blackened, with orange grease forming in the center of the cup. This style remains popular in parts of the Midwest. 
  • Deli-style: This often comes in an edible natural casing and uses traditional methods. It can often be found at the deli counter, and is a great addition to cheese boards or your favorite pasta recipe. 

Can You Eat Pepperoni Raw? 

Pepperoni is a sausage made from uncooked meat, but the curing process makes it perfectly safe to eat it raw. 

How to Use Pepperoni

Pepperoni are sold whole in links or sliced in small packages at supermarkets. You’ll be surprised to know there are other ways of using pepperoni

Whole pepperoni can be minced and grated and used in pasta salads, as a topping for baked potatoes, and as garnish for soups. As for the pre-cut ones, aside from using it as a pizza topping, it can be strung on antipasto skewers or stuffed in mushrooms. It can also be used as an ingredient in quesadillas, strombolis, calzones, and pizza rolls.

How to Store Pepperoni Properly

Store pepperoni in the refrigerator or freezer to maintain freshness. Use pepperoni within one week of opening. Once you open the package, add an extra layer of plastic cling wrap around it to prevent it from drying out. If you’re unable to use it, repackage it in an airtight container and freeze it. 

If you don’t store it properly, the ends will turn dry and appear shriveled. This doesn’t mean it’s bad. What you can do is cut off the ends and smell the pepperoni. If that still doesn’t give you an answer, you may want to try a small piece to help you judge on whether or not to consume it.