Slice

Taste Test: Sliced Pepperoni

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[Photographs: Meredith Smith]

The Winners!

Snacking:
  • #1: Wellshire Uncured
  • #2: Ciao
Pizza Topping:
  • #1: Hormel Natural Choice
  • #2: Margherita

Pepperoni is ah-one-ah-spicy-sausage that ranks as America's preferred pizza topping. And that makes good sense. The spicy, air-dried sausage is an Italian-American creation, after all. Made from a blend of pork and beef, the fine grind of this salami creates a soft, easily sliceable cured meat. While there are lots of pepperoni sausages sold in their stick form, the most commonly available are the pre-sliced rounds, a la Hormel. So come along as we taste our way through six national brands of sliced pepperoni.

The Contenders

The Criteria

In terms of flavor, a good slice of pepperoni should have salt, spice, and heat in good balance, with a little spike of acidity. Too much acidity and the pepperoni can taste sour, but with too little, there's nothing to cut through the fat. Paprika is the predominant seasoning in the American salami, and it is also responsible for giving the pepperoni its characteristic orange color—the pink comes from nitrates. A good pepperoni will have some detectable paprika flavor and not just bleed orange. Garlic flavor and a slight smokiness make for desirable pepperoni flavor characteristics as well.

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[Clockwise from top: Bridgford, Ciao, Hormel Natural Choice, Hormel, Margherita, Wellshire Farms]

The fine grind of cured pork and beef keeps pepperoni on the soft side compared to most dried sausages. So chewy and soft are par for the course when eating slices straight from the bag. However, when pepperoni meets heat, the textural differences really start to matter. A pepperoni that has a meaty chew but can also achieve a crackling crisp rim is the holy grail of pizza pepperoni.

To that end, there were two rounds of testing. The first round was snacking style, sampling all six brands in their unheated state. In the follow up round, the 'ronis were applied to a cheese pizza to see how the flavors and textures of these dried sausages transformed. And while cupping is a point that has been much discussed on Slice, we didn't place too much emphasis on it in this pre-sliced pepperoni taste test, but would give it more weight in a pepperoni stick taste test.

The Brands We Tested

Hormel Natural Choice

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Snack:
In round one, tasters praised the uncured Hormel pepperoni for its "classic pepperoni flavor" and described it as soft, salty, and with a late, but spicy heat.

Cooked:
But it was in the pizza application that this brand really excelled. "Little, but packs a punch," wrote one commenter. The thicker cut of this pepperoni allowed it to form "nice cups" and simultaneously achieve the some crispness around the edges. It had a "more complex, and less predictable flavor" that really came through in the pizza round. It was the clear winner for pie-topping pepperoni!

Wellshire Farms

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Snack:
These uncured pepperoni boast pork and beef raised without antibiotics, raising the all-natural, minimally-processed bar. The thickest cut of the brands tried, these meaty rounds make for a top snacking pepperoni, but tasters found the brownish "nitrate-free" color less visually appealing. The flavor descriptions ranged from "more salami-ish" to "more turkey-like." But as a less "in-your-face, I'm pepperoni" way, they are easier to eat by the slice, despite the more pronounced vinegary tang.

Cooked:
On a slice of cheese pizza, the thick Wellshire pepperoni had some cupping in form, but the heat of the "hearty" and "meaty" pieces was lost in the other components of the pizza, making it "more jerky than pepperoni."

Margherita

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Snack:
Unlike the straight garlic, paprika, salt components of most commercial pepperoni, tasters identified a fennel seed flavor in the Margherita brand, describing it "like a sausage and pepperoni rolled into one." Others found it a tad on the salty side, but no one claimed it lacked flavor.

Cooked:
Tasters picked up on more paprika flavor in this brand when cooked. It maintained its pronounced vinegary heat even in the face of cheese, sauce, and dough, making it the second most favored sliced pepperoni in the pizza round.

Ciao

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Snack:
Ciao ran a close second to Wellshire Farms for being good eatin' on its own. The spice and heat are not for the tender mouthed, however. "It definitely leaves a burn," commented one taster. But it's less salty and "captures the classic pepperoni flavor."

Cooked:
While the Trader Joe's sold brand did well in the snack portion of the tasting, there was more dissension in the pizza round. Some thought it cooked up nicely, while others noted that it was "limp and greasy, thin without the benefit of crisping." In terms of flavor, however, it was mostly agreed to be spicier and not get lost in the flavors of the pizza.

Bridgford

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Snack:
The shock of bright orange makes these a visual standout. "Fake!" surmised one taster. And it seems the tasting yielded concurring elaboration with, "Ick. No. This tastes like bologna with hot sauce." Sadly, Bridgford came in last on round one.

Cooked:
However, in a surprise turn around, this ultra thin pepperoni one some tasters over in the pizza round for the "nice crackle." Others found the "thinness kind of appealing, oddly." And somehow in the grease-releasing heat, some of that odd bologna flavor seeped away.

Hormel

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Snack:
This most ubiquitous of brands fell in the middle of the pack for the first tasting. It was described as being "like a little kid pepperoni." There wasn't necessarily anything wrong with it, but it lacked that little something extra. Or as others put it, "BORING."

Cooked:
Where Hormel ranked in the middle on the first tasting, its rank slipped to the bottom in the pizza taste test. Those "bland, boring" characteristics caused it to get "completely lost in the pizza shuffle." The grease factor didn't help, but the main complaint was that it was just "nothing special."

Our Tasting Methodology: All taste tests are conducted completely blind and without discussion. Tasters taste samples in random order. For example, taster A may taste sample 1 first, while taster B will taste sample 6 first. This is to prevent palate fatigue from unfairly giving any one sample an advantage. Tasters are asked to fill out tasting sheets ranking the samples for various criteria that vary from sample to sample. All data is tabulated and results are calculated with no editorial input in order to give us the most impartial representation of actual results possible.

About the author: Meredith Smith is the Slice editor. You can follow her on Twitter: @mertsmith.

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