Frozen Pepperoni Pizza
How we tested
Associated with cash-strapped college students and undiscerning children, frozen pizza doesn’t exactly have a reputation for quality. Still, it’s not hard to see why more than 1.3 billion frozen pies were sold in the United States last year: It’s a cheap and convenient meal that comes in an endless array of options. We’ve noticed a trend of manufacturers trying to cash in on the current “artisanal” pizza craze by offering “brick oven” or “fire baked” frozen products that promise a more gourmet, pizzeria-style pie. We wondered: Does this mean there’s better frozen pizza out there?
We’ve tasted frozen cheese pizza before, but recently we learned that pepperoni is equally, if not more, popular. So for this tasting, we focused on pepperoni and assembled a lineup of seven pizzas—three artisanal-style pies, three national best sellers, and the pepperoni version of a cheese pizza from a brand we’ve liked in the past.
To find out why we liked what we did, we analyzed the pizzas from the top down, starting with the pepperoni, which was almost a nonissue: Every product had sufficiently plentiful and flavorful pepperoni for our tasters.
Cheese, though, was a bit more contentious. Tasters liked clean, traditional, milky mozzarellas, and four of the seven products delivered. Of the three that we didn’t like, one product tasted sooty from the addition of smoked gouda. Worse, another product’s cheese was so waxen that some tasters called it “prison pizza.” The label showed that it’s not even real cheese but a substitute made from palm and soybean oils—yuck.
When we got to the sauce, the gap between good and bad was even wider. Our tasters preferred herby sauces with strong tomato flavor and balanced tang. Overly sweet sauces earned low marks for tasting “cheap” and processed. We also wanted a moderate amount of sauce; some pizzas were so saucy that the sauce soaked right through the crust, making the dough “gummy.”
Pizza aficionados will tell you that great pizza is all about the crust, so it’s not surprising that this was the most important element to our tasters. And newer artisanal-style crusts won by a landslide. Tasters thought that they held the weight of the toppings better and actually resembled “real” pizza.
What does “real” pizza look like? First, a crust we could hold on to. Nearly all our bottom-ranked pizzas were covered from edge to edge with sauce and cheese, while artisanal-style pizzas gave us a solid rim of crust to wrap our hands around. Second, artisanal crusts were thicker. When we measured their crusts, our preferred pizzas were 14 to 20 millimeters at their thickest edge, while bottom-ranked pies were a paltry 5 to 10 millimeters. Thin crusts were veritable crackers—“dried out” and “cardboardy.” We preferred crusts with an “airy” chew reminiscent of pizzeria-quality dough.
Looks aside, are artisanal-style crusts made differently? Frozen pizza cooks in two stages: It’s parbaked at the factory and finished at home. We asked manufacturers about their methods, but they were tight-lipped. However, when we examined the underside of each pizza straight from the freezer, we found a clue about artisanal pies. Top-ranked products showed visible char marks and browning on their crusts, while lower-scoring pies had pale undersides that hardly looked baked at all. We could tell right out of the box that our preferred products were baked more thoroughly at the factory, and this produced a much better crust.
They’re baked differently at home, too. We compared each product’s instructions and noticed that pies baked at lower temperatures for longer outperformed those that cooked shorter and hotter. Why? According to our science editor, temperature matters more than time when it comes to moisture loss. Higher temperatures conduct heat into the bottom of the pizza faster, causing the crust to lose more water and turn brittle, while products that baked lower and slower emerged evenly tender. We tried cooking bottom-ranking products like their winning counterparts, and while this did improve their texture slightly, they were too thin and dried out from the get-go to fully recover.
In the end, tasters overwhelmingly preferred artisanal-style crusts: The three we included earned gold, silver, and bronze in our rankings, with a new product by a best-selling brand taking top honors. Our winner won over skeptics with meaty pepperoni, milky mozzarella, and, most important, a chewy and tender crust. But good crust comes at a price: Our recommended pizzas are nearly twice the cost of bottom-ranked products, and about on par with a delivery pie of the same size. Still, we think that a premium-quality frozen pizza is worth the extra dough, so we’ll reach for our winner.