What Is Pepperoni and How Do I Get The Best Stuff?

There are plenty of things you can put on a pizza, but no topping is as universal, as iconic, as quintessentially American pizza shop as pepperoni. Sliced thick or thin, this mild-spicy sausage brings a ton of savory goodness to any pizza party. 

But pepperoni doesn’t have to be kept in a box (even if it’s a box with a little plastic table in the middle to stop the cheese from getting stuck to the top). Think beyond pizza! This versatile ingredient presents a whole world of possibilities just waiting to be discovered.

So what is pepperoni?

Before it ends up at your slice shop, most pepperoni starts out as ground pork, beef, or a mixture of the two. Producers then add paprika, which helps give the sausage its characteristic deep red hue, as well as garlic and other aromatics like fennel seeds to up the flavor factor. Once it’s packaged into sausages, the mixture is aged for several days before being smoked and dried. Throughout this process the sausages undergo mild fermentation, during which lactic acid builds up, contributing to the deep tangy flavor, and water is lost, creating the dense, chewy texture we love.

Pepperoni may sound 100% Italian, but it is an American invention. According to Angie Rito and Scott Tacinelli, writers of the cookbook Italian American and chef-owners behind New York’s Don Angie restaurant, there’s some mystery about where and when the sausage was first made, but it appeared sometime in the early 1900s in butcher shops and pizzerias in the US.

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“It seems to be most closely related to a Neapolitan- or Calabrese-style dried salami that would have a lot of dried chiles in it,” Rito explains, noting that early waves of Italian migration predominantly came from the region’s southern territories. Without access to the same ingredients, early Italian American butchers had to adapt salami recipes based on what was on hand. “Paprika would have been more readily available and cheaper [in the United States],” says Rito, “and then people realized it was just delicious.”

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