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By Cook's Illustrated Published December 2014

Frozen Dinner Rolls

Published December 2014

How we tested

Frozen rolls pale in comparison with good fresh ones, but they do have their perks. They keep for months in the freezer, so you can always have bread on hand. And you can bake only what you need and forgo that leftover half of a baguette that often lurks for days, stale and forgotten. We’ve tasted frozen rolls before and found them so-so—OK in a pinch, but it would have to be quite a firm pinch. Our previous winner was discontinued, so we returned to the freezer aisle and found new lines touting “stone baked,” “artisan,” “crusty,” and “French” rolls. They certainly sound better—are they?

We tasted three nationally available products; two are partially baked at the factory, and one is fully baked, quickly frozen, and reheated at home. We cooked them according to their package instructions and called 21 editors and test cooks to the table. One product completely tanked, but we liked a second product and really liked the third.

Tasters wanted rolls that were crusty outside and tender inside. Both of our top two products nailed this, but the bottom-ranking product was “gummy” and “dense.” We compared labels and saw that the dense rolls had 17 different ingredients. (The other two had seven and eight, respectively.) Among these were vital wheat gluten, guar gum, and xanthan gum; all three ingredients retain moisture and create a gummy texture. These rolls were also the only ones to include some whole-wheat flour, which makes for denser bread.

As for flavor, the two products we liked were pleasantly wheaty and yeasty. Our favorite product earned extra points for tasting “the most homemade.” We checked and found that it uses a basic recipe of mostly flour, water, salt, and yeast. These rolls also have 40 to 60 milligrams more sodium per serving than the others, which enhanced the bread’s flavor without overwhelming it. Tasters noted that the lowest-scoring product was “funky” and “tart.” We found that it’s the only one that adds sourdough starter. Sourdough flavor can be excellent, but here it was off: “Not like sourdough. More like gym shoes,” said one taster.

Pleasantly wheaty, crispy, and chewy, our dairy-free winning rolls are better than any frozen rolls we’ve tasted before. They’re also the only product that’s fully cooked at the factory in a stone oven, which yielded the crispiest, lightest rolls. Good fresh bread is always our first choice, but when it’s unavailable, we’d be happy to serve our winning rolls at our table.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*
Recommended

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*