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Pepperoni: Is It Pork or Beef?

Pepperoni is an Italian-American staple and a league of its own among all sausages. But do you really know what it’s made of?

The only thing that’s better than pepperoni on your pizza? Lots of pepperoni on your pizza. (And I’m pretty sure meat lover Ron Swanson of Parks and Recreation would give an approving smirk here!)

But as much as we all love pepperoni, do we all know pepperoni? You know… the ingredients that go into it and shiz? The stuff that gets ground up and wounds up in those salty, spicy, greasy slices?

If you’re hungry for pepperoni knowledge, look no further: you, my friend, are about to receive the Ivy League pepperoni education. In just a moment, we’ll dive deep into the world of pepperoni to understand what this Italian-American sausage is made of, how exactly it’s made—and all the other questions you didn’t know you needed to ask.

What Is Pepperoni Made Of?

It’s a good question—and an important one to ask. And, as with any good question, the long answer short is, it depends.

Pepperoni is a dry sausage traditionally prepared from a mixture of ground pork and beef. It’s seasoned with curing salt and spices, incl. black pepper, sweet paprika, garlic powder, mustard seed, fennel seed, and chili powder.

The O.G. recipe for pepperoni, developed by Italian immigrants in America in the early 20th century, contains more pork than beef. Of course, there are other variations with more beef than pork, beef only, and even poultry, which are just as irresistible as the original.

According to the second edition of the Handbook of Meat, Poultry, and Seafood Quality, if the meat mixture for pepperoni contains more than 55% beef, the sausage must be labeled as beef and pork pepperoni.

The handbook also states that pepperoni made only from 100% beef must be labeled—you guessed it—beef pepperoni.

Pepperoni can also have poultry added, usually turkey, as long as it’s labeled properly. If it has less than 20% turkey, it’s called pepperoni with turkey added. If the turkey content is more than 20%, then the sausage is called pork and turkey pepperoni.

These days, there’s even plant-based pepperoni made of tofu or seitan!

The good news is that it’s easy to distinguish between the pepperoni varieties at the store because pepperoni manufacturers are required by law to label them correctly. When in doubt, the product’s name and ingredients list should say it all.

Comparing Pork, Beef, and Poultry Pepperoni

Regular pepperoni—that is, pork and beef pepperoni—is richer and more succulent than beef and pork pepperoni or all-beef pepperoni.

Generally, all-beef pepperoni is denser and leaner than regular pepperoni, and has a beefier, heartier flavor. All-beef pepperoni is deemed halal, and it’s the only variety of the American sausage that’s eaten in the Middle East.

Many meat-eaters consider turkey pepperoni the healthier option because poultry contains less saturated fat than red meat. But, as Sara Ipatenco reports for SFGATE, it’s also chock-full of salt. So if you need to watch your sodium intake, take it easy on the pepperoni.

So… Is Pepperoni Red Meat?

If the pepperoni in question is made out of pork and beef or beef alone, then the answer is yes, it’s red meat. If it contains turkey, it’s technically poultry.

But, when talking about classification, it’s important to note that pepperoni isn’t just red meat. Since it’s cured with nitrates and nitrites, pepperoni actually processed meat.

And I hate to be the one to break it to you but, as explained by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, eating too much processed meat is considered bad for your health. It turns out a number of studies have found links between processed meat consumption and various forms of cancer, as well as heart disease and diabetes.

Is Pepperoni Italian or American?

Err… both! To give you the long and the short of it, pepperoni is as Italian-American as baked ziti, chicken parmigiana, and spaghetti with meatballs.

John Mariani, food historian and author of How Italian Food Conquered the World, tells The New York Times that the first written mention of pepperoni dates back to 1919, when pizzerias and Italian butcher shops began to flourish in the Big Apple.

Go looking for pepperoni sausage in Italy, and you’ll get nothing but confused looks from the locals (if you’re in luck, you might get a portion of spicy Italian salami accompanied by bell peppers).

In fact, there is no pepperoni sausage in Italian cuisine. The closest relative of pepperoni is the ventricina pork sausage from Italy’s Abruzzo region, as well as the spreadable and spicy nduja and the fatty soppressata of Calabria.

Is Pepperoni Just for Pizza?

Pepperoni and pizza go together like strawberries and cream, especially if you live stateside. Jennifer Hussein of Eat This, Not That writes that 251.7 million pounds of pepperoni are consumed every year in the United States from pizzas alone.

And YouGov America’s Jamie Ballard reports that, in a poll of 6,000 American adults, two-thirds (that’s 64%) said they liked pepperoni. (In case you’re wondering, second to pepperoni was sausage, followed by mushrooms, extra cheese, and onions.)

But have you ever wondered if pepperoni is just for pizza?

In short, no. Pizza is by far the most popular dish made with pepperoni, but it definitely isn’t the only one. From pepperoni rolls to pepperoni pasta with lemon and garlic to pepperoni sub sandwiches, this spicy sausage pairs wonderfully with any dish that involves carbs and dairy.

In Summary

Pepperoni is usually made from pork and beef. But it can also be made from beef and pork. Or made entirely of beef. Or turkey. It can even be meatless, as in vegan, although meat purists would argue that the thing should be called something else (vegeroni, anybody?!).

As delicious as pepperoni is, don’t forget that it isn’t very nutritious. Even if you like it, don’t eat it too often, and do so only in moderation.

Know your author

Written by

Dim is a food writer, cookbook author, and the editor of Home Cook World. His first book, Cooking Methods & Techniques, was published in 2022. He is a certified food handler with Level 1 and Level 2 Certificates in Food Hygiene and Safety for Catering, and a trained cook with a Level 3 Professional Chef Diploma.