When you think of pepperoni, most likely you think of one thing: pizza. And with good reason, since pepperoni is by far the most popular pizza topping. But what exactly is pepperoni?
What Is Pepperoni?
Pepperoni is a dried, cured, spiced sausage made from beef and pork. As with all sausages, making pepperoni requires using the right cuts of meat to obtain the correct meat-to-fat ratio. For pepperoni, that ratio is around 70 percent lean to 30 percent fat. Additionally, achieving the desired texture—not too coarse and not too fine—means that the meat and fat need to be ground to a granulation of about 2 to 3 millimeters.
The ground meat is then combined with seasonings, including salt, sugar, and spices such as paprika and garlic powder. This mixture is inoculated with a culture of lactobacillus bacteria, which produce lactic acid, a crucial ingredient in curing the sausage as well as in giving the pepperoni its characteristic tangy flavor. Lactobacillus is the same bacteria used for making yogurt and cheese, and it's also produced by the wild yeasts in a sourdough starter.
Next, the mixture is stuffed into sausage casings, and the filled sausages are hung on racks in a smokehouse where they're exposed to warm (around 77 F), humid air, which triggers the fermentation process. The lactobacillus begins to consume the sugar in the seasoning, producing lactic acid. In addition to imparting flavor, the lactic acid prevents the growth of harmful bacteria that cause food poisoning.
After fermentation, the sausages are smoked, typically with maple and hickory chips. Fermentation and smoking can take as much as five days. After this, the sausages are transferred to a drying room, where they dry for a few more days. At this point, if the pepperoni are intended for use as a pizza topping, they are sliced and then packaged.
The thickness of the slices determine whether they will "cup" when the pizza cooks. Cupping is when the pepperoni slices curl up at the edges, forming a cup, giving the edges a crispy texture while allowing the fat from the pepperoni to pool in the center of the cup rather than spreading across the pizza.
How to Use Pepperoni
In addition to using pepperoni slices as a pizza topping, pepperoni can also be used as a component of cheese boards or antipasto platters. They're a great ingredient in quesadillas and grilled cheese sandwiches, and the whole sausages can be minced or even grated and used as a topping for baked potatoes, in pasta salads, and as a garnish for soups. You can freeze the sausages beforehand to make grating them easier.
Beyond pizza, use pepperoni in casseroles, omelets, sandwiches, cheese plates, and breads.
What Does It Taste Like?
Because it's cured with salt, spices and lactic acid, pepperoni has a salty, spicy, tangy flavor. The texture is distinctly chewy, which is one reason for slicing it so thinly. As we mentioned earlier, typical spices in pepperoni include paprika, garlic powder, and sugar, but different preparations will feature different spice blends. The paprika is fairly standard, though, as it helps impart the slightly reddish color and flavor that pepperoni is known for.
Can You Freeze Pepperoni?
Pepperoni can be frozen as a step in prepping it (making it easier to grate) but you can also freeze it for long-term storage. Because it's a cured meat, it really doesn't need to be frozen—it will keep for a long time in the refrigerator. But freezing it is perfectly fine. You can freeze the whole stick, wrapped in plastic, or the slices, sealed in a container or in freezer bags.
Whole, sealed pepperoni sticks can be kept in the fridge indefinitely or in your pantry for up to six weeks. Sliced pepperoni will keep in the refrigerator for several weeks, if not longer, and in the freezer for at least 8 months and conceivably up to a year. The biggest spoilage issue with pepperoni is that over time the fat can turn rancid if exposed to oxygen, heat, or light.
Where to Buy Pepperoni
Whole pepperoni sticks can be purchased at the grocery store, in the meat and deli section, or at specialty meat shops, butcher shops, and delicatessens. Sliced pepperoni can likewise be purchased at the supermarket, though you might find it in plastic packages in the regular grocery aisles, not the refrigerator aisles, since it's a cured product and doesn't require refrigeration.