Making pepperoni sausage at home is extremely rewarding and is very similar to the making of Summer sausage. I made it once many years ago and it has become a staple at our home. This is not your typical store-bought pepperoni - this one has better texture, much better flavor, and it tastes like high quality sausage. This sausage is outstanding. You can even make sandwiches with it, it's that good. Smoked pepperoni is to die for. Your pizzas will taste better than ever. Smoke greatly improves flavor and increases shelf life of sausage due to its antibacterial properties. In this article I will talk about how to make pepperoni sausage at home and share my experience.
What is pepperoni sausage?
Pepperoni sausage is an Italian-American semi-dry fermented sausage typically made of pork and beef. Pepperoni sausage made of beef or pork alone is also common. Peperoni is seasoned with paprika and aromatic herbs, has a soft texture, is slightly smoky, and bright red in color. It is a popular pizza topping in American pizzerias.
The name pepperoni implies Italian origin but it's far from the truth. It does have some similarities to the spicy salamis of southern Italy, such as salsiccia Napoletana piccante, or Calabrese salami. Pepperoni has a finer grain though, is usually softer, and is made with artificial casings.
Pepperoni sausage is typically made of a combination of pork and beef, or pork or beef alone. The ratios of pork to beef vary from 75% pork and 25% beef to 25% pork and 75% beef. It really depends on personal preference. Sometimes all you have is pork butt, or chuck roast, and may decide to make an all pork or all beef pepperoni. My personal preference for pepperoni is 75% to 100% pork.
The taste of pepperoni sausage is very much dependent on the freshness and the quality of meat. To get the best results, buy your meat fresh and grind it yourself. Alternatively, ask your butcher to grind it for you. You want to grind the meat fairly fine, through a 3/16" (4.5mm) plate.
Pepperoni sausage spices
The dominating spice in this sausage is paprika, which gives it a characteristic orange color. You will also find aromatic spices such as anise, allspice, fennel, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, mustard and black pepper among the commonly used spices in pepperoni sausage. Many recipes also add cayenne pepper for a little kick.
The best pepperoni sausage though is the sausage made to suit your taste, so feel free to experiment to come up with your favorite spice combination. If possible, grind your spices just before adding them to the ground meat. This will help you get the most flavor out of them.
Curing salt and cultures
As the typical pepperoni sausage is a fermented semi-dry sausage, a meat culture such as Bactoferm FL-C is used. Bactoferm F-LC meat culture with bioprotective properties is used for the production of fermented sausages with short or traditional production times. During fermentation pH of the meat drops to 5.3 which helps inhibit growth of pathogenic bacteria and gives the sausage its tangy taste. FL-C culture can be purchased from sausagemaker.com or butcher-packer.com.
In this recipe, pepperoni sausage is fermented and then smoked at temperatures that promote growth of unwanted bacteria. To prevent that, Cure #1 (also known as pink salt) is used. Pink salt also improves flavor, prevents food poisoning, tenderizes meat, and develops the pink color widely known and associated with smoked meats. You can purchase Cure #1 from the online stores mentioned above as well as on Amazon - DQ Curing Salt #1 / Pink Salt.
Grinding meat and mixing with spices
You want to make sure that the salt and the spices are mixed well with the meat and distributed evenly. One way to ensure even seasoning distribution is to mix them with the pieces of meat before they are ground. This is my favorite method and it works very well.
After grinding the meat, simply add the starter culture re-hydrated in 1/3 cup of water and mix well.
The most common casing size used for pepperoni sausage is 1 1/2" (38mm) in diameter. This is the size that most pepperoni produced in America uses.
That said, there is nothing wrong with making pepperoni a bit thicker, like 2" - 2 1/2" (50-60mm). You can use beef middles or collagen casings. I like to use collagen casings for pepperoni sausage as they are easier to use and make straight links. These casings are sold as pepperoni stick casings and can be purchased from a variety of places, e.g. your local sausage making supply store, Amazon (Non-Edible Fibrous Casings), thesausagemaker.com, or butcher-packer.com.
Stuffing meat into casings
The most efficient and economical way to stuff the meat into casings is to use a vertical sausage stuffer, such as the LEM Products 5 Pound Sausage Stuffer or the LEM Motorized 20 lb stuffer. I own both of these stuffers, they both do a great job, though one is perfect for one-person operation.
You may also use a sausage stuffer attachment for your meat grinder, but you may be disappointed with the results. Meat grinders are not designed for stuffing sausages and, frankly, do a very poor job at it.
A cheaper alternative to a vertical sausage stuffer that would yield better results than a meat grinder attachment would be a manual sausage stuffer like the LEM Manual Sausage Stuffer. These stuffers are great for occasional use. They are hard to use and require good physical strength to operate, but can produce good results after some practice.
Stuff the meat firmly, ensuring that no air pockets remain inside. Getting all the air out is practically impossible and you will see some tiny cavities after your sausage is done. This is not a problem for semi-dry sausages. Just do your best but don't worry if some tiny air pockets remain.
The cooking equipment
To smoke pepperoni sausage, you will need a smoker or a grill that is capable of maintaining low temperatures.
A dedicated electric sausage smoker would be ideal, like the very popular Masterbuilt 30-Inch Smoker. Many people consider this smoker to be the best value for home sausage making needs.
Should you need a looking window to enjoy your sausage while it's being smoked, you can get an equally popular Masterbuilt 30-Inch Electric Smoker with Window and RF Controller.
Using a propane smoker
It's not that easy to maintain low temperatures with, but modifying it with a needle valve, like the Bayou Classic Brass Control Valve, will fix that. If you don't feel comfortable installing a needle valve into the gas line yourself, you can buy a pre-made gas assembly, like the Bayou Classic M5HPR-1 10 PSI Hose, Regulator, Valve Assembly. You need to make sure that the regulator on the assembly you are buying matches the specs of your burner. Needle Valves for Gassers is a good resource for more information on this.
Using a smokehouse
This is the ultimate option. If you want a taste of traditional smoked sausage, smoke in a smokehouse. I don't know what it is, the air flow, the humidity or something else, but sausages smoked in a smokehouse feel and taste a little different. I recently built a smokehouse and use it for smoking sausage. If you are a DIY type, check out Stanley Marianski's excellent book called Meat Smoking And Smokehouse Design that talks about different smoker designs that you can build at home.
Other smoking equipment
If you have a Big Green Egg, it's a viable option as well. I've used it for smoking sausages, like summer sausage, at low heat before building my smokehouse. It's not too hard to start this grill at about 110F and maintain that temperature for about 1-2 hours. Eventually, the temperature will creep up but that's exactly what you want anyway. You just have to control the airflow such that the temperature does not rise too quickly.
The final resort option
If none of the above works for you, don't give up. You can cook your sausage in the kitchen oven. You won't get the same amazing smoky flavor and the color, but it's still better than nothing. Just make sure to cook the sausage at low temperatures to not let the fat melt out. This is very important.
Stanley Marianski in his Home Production of Quality Meats and Sausages book mentions that once the temperature of the meat reaches about 100F all fat tissues become liquid. That said, there is very little fat loss between 150 - 190F or even up to the boiling point of water of 212F. Above those levels, the fat starts to leak out quite rapidly. There is a significant fat loss at temperatures over 248F. Sausages cooked at temperatures higher than 190F will have a dry, crumbly texture.
Ideally, smoke your pepperoni at 110F – 130F until the desired color is achieved, then gradually increase the temperature to 150-175F, and then all the way to 190F if needed, to achieve the internal temperature of 140F.
If cooking in the oven, start cooking the sausage at the lowest setting (usually around 170F) and slowly increase to 190F, until the internal temperature of the sausage reaches the target temperature.
- 700 g pork butt about 1.54 lbs; see notes
- 300 g beef chuck about 0.66 lbs; see notes
- 23 g salt about 4 tsp
- 2.5 g Cure #1 about 1/2 tsp
- 10 g dextrose or glucose; about 2 tsp
- 5 g sugar - 5.0 g about 1 tsp
- 3 g black pepper ground, about 1½ tsp
- 8 g sweet paprika ground, about 4 tsp
- 2.5 g anise seeds ground; about 1 tsp
- 2 g allspice ground; about 1 tsp
- 2 g cayenne pepper about 1 tsp
- 0.24 g F-LC culture use scale
- 80 ml distilled water about 1/3 cup
- Grind pork and beef through 3/16” plate (5 mm).
- Mix all ingredients with ground meat.
- Stuff into beef middles or fibrous casings about 60 mm in diameter.
- Ferment at 86F (30C) and 85-90% humidity for 24 hours.
- Place the sausage in the smoker and smoke at 110F - 130F and 70% humidity for 6 hours. Gradually increase smoke temperature to 150-175F, and then all the way to 190F if needed, until internal meat temperature reaches 140F.
- For a drier sausage, dry for 3 days at 60-70F and 65-75% humidity or until desired weight loss is achieved.
- Store sausages at 50-59F and 75-80% humidity.
If you want to use a different process, without fermentation, I suggest Rytek Kutases recipe which suggests using 2 Tbsp powdered dextrose, 3/4 cup fermento and 3 Tbsp corn syrup solids per 10 lbs of meat. Cook sausages to 152F internal in this case.
If you don't have the starter culture, or Fermento, but really want to make pepperoni, you can always make it as you would a regular kielbasa. Follow my Polish kielbasa recipe process, only replace the spices and seasonings with the ones in this recipe. The sausage won't be exactly like pepperoni but will be pretty close and will taste great nevertheless.