Pepperoni: What Is It and How Is It Made?

Pepperoni is one of the most popular pizza toppings in America. It is an accumulation of meat and seasonings in the form of a salami sausage, giving off a slightly smoky and very meaty flavor.

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But what is pepperoni and how is it made? Here’s a gastronomic answer.

Is Pepperoni Italian?

Despite most assumptions, pepperoni is actually Italian-American and was never invented in Italy, unlike other forms of salami.

‘Peperoni’ is the Italian word for bell pepper, and ‘peperoncino’ means hot and spicy peppers. This is most likely where the word ‘pepperoni’ actually derives from, as the first use of this word referring to salami sausages was back in 1919. 

If you ask for an authentic pepperoni pizza in Italy, there’s a chance you may receive something completely different to what you expect!

This meat was actually invented in New York City by Italian butchers and pizzerias who came to the city at the beginning of the 1900s.

Pepperoni began as an accumulation of spicy sausage recipes, and was considered an exotic pizza topping until gas ovens became popular in the 1950s. 

Origins of Pepperoni 

Cured meats have existed for centuries, as they can be preserved without refrigeration.

Back in the days of the Roman Empire, the Romans would cure meats with seasoning and spices to prevent having to catch their meat daily. 

There is even evidence of cured meat existing as far back as 40,000 BC according to cave paintings in Sicily. These cave paintings suggest that evaporated salt from the sea water and ash was used to dry meat. 

As time continued, curing meats has been a popular form of food preservation. In Europe, countless variations of sausages were created with this form of preservation, including the spicy red meats in Italy which inspired the making of pepperoni in America. 

So what is pepperoni made of? 

We all know the taste of pepperoni. It stands out for its smoky and slightly spicy flavor that works wonderfully with pizza. The texture is fairly soft, not chewy, and is finely-grained. 

The pepperoni sausage itself is made of minced beef and cured pork along with other spices. It follows a curing process, which shall be explained later.

It can technically be made with other meats including turkey, but this does affect the authenticity of the taste. 

Ingredients 

Most pepperoni sausages are made in the same way, any other ingredient changes are labelled.

In America, if pepperoni has been made with turkey meat, this must be stated. 

The main ingredients of pepperoni include: 

  • Ground pork 
  • Ground beef 
  • Salt 
  • Insta Cure 
  • Red pepper powder
  • Allspice powder
  • Aniseed powder
  • Garlic
  • Sugar
  • Hog casing

The salt and sodium nitrate are included for the curing process, and the nitrate is involved to give the distinctive red color. 

How is Pepperoni Made? 

  1. Beef and pork chunks are finely chopped or minced. The spices and sodium nitrate are added to combine the meat as a curing agent. Sugar is also added for flavor and as a fermentation agent and prevents rising acid levels - whilst the meat is low in acid, the curing process will naturally increase acidity.

  2. The meat mixture is refrigerated for 3 days. 

  3. After this, the mixture is put into casings. Casings are usually made from the intestines of a pig or cow, and are designed to keep the shape of the pepperoni. Casings also need soaking prior to use to get rid of the salinity.

  4. The stuffed casings will make links of the pepperoni filling and are sectioned off with rope or string, and then refrigerated between 10-12 hours. 

  5. In a smoke chamber, the prepared pepperoni is then hung out to dry at a low temperature for a few weeks. This process is slow and steady to prevent over-drying of the meat.

Curing Process 

Curing is an old-fashioned process of preserving meat that has existed since as early as the Roman Empire, and potentially even earlier than that.

Curing is most effective for thinner meats as they cure faster, and therefore have a longer shelf life. If you are planning to cure your own meat, we have the best ways to do this. 

You will need to weigh your meat first - this figure needs to be recorded as it will be an indicator of when your cured meat is ready after the process. 

Dry Curing 

Dry curing is the most traditional method of curing. You will need a large container with salt in the bottom, and then you will need to put the meat on top of this with another layer of salt over the meat.

It will need to be refrigerated for 24 hours. You will know if the meat is cured when it has lost between 35-40% of its original weight - hence why recording the original weight is so important.   

Equilibrium Curing 

This method is more modern and is the easiest for curing at home. The amount of salt you need has to be equivalent to 3% of how much your meat originally weighs.

The surface of the meat will then be layered with that salt, and then the meat needs to be sealed tightly. This will sit in a refrigerator for around 5 days, and then you will need to weigh it to see if it is cured properly.

Again, it should lose around 35-40% of its original weight. 

Brine Curing 

Brine curing is as simple as submerging the meat into salt, and then keeping it refrigerated.

This method is best for bringing out the flavor, and can be combined with the dry curing method. 

Sausage Curing 

This method is all about sodium nitrate.

The ground meat must be mixed with sodium nitrate to cure effectively. 

Curing Facts 

  • The meat needs nitrate to accomplish the red or pink color. Without it, the meat looks grey. 
  • Cured meat is dried meat, and it is not raw. 
  • Excessive amounts of processed and cured meat can be detrimental to health problems such as cardiovascular issues and colon cancer. 
  • Cured meat is ideal for those who hunt their meat, or who need more room in their freezer.
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Cassie brings decades of experience to the Kitchen Community.
She is a noted chef and avid gardener. Her new book "Healthy Eating Through the Garden" will be released shortly. When not writing or speaking about food and gardens Cassie can be found puttering around farmer's markets and greenhouses looking for the next great idea.
Cassie Marshall
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