Recently, Consumer Reports asked the question, "Can a frozen pizza truly satisfy anyone other than discriminating kids? In other words, you?" The answer: Yes. Among the findings, published in the January 2011 issue, "...most pies in our ratings were very good--as good or better than the Domino's hand-tossed cheese pizzas we taste tested in May 2010."
But what makes a good pizza? Whether it's fresh or frozen, critics agree that the secret is in the crust.
When made fresh, pizza dough is left to sit, or "proof," allowing the yeast to digest the sugars in the flour. The byproducts of this fermentation (ethanol and carbon dioxide) become trapped by gluten in the dough. Once heated, the gas expands, causing the dough to rise, resulting in the outwardly crisp, chewy-centered bread most often used as the foundation for pizza. Replicating this process for widespread home consumption has been the holy grail of the frozen food industry. The problem: water, more specifically, ice. Freezing caused ice crystals to form, breaking down the gluten structure in the dough and the cell structure of toppings, resulting in the crumbly, soggy mess often associated with early frozen pies. And "a good frozen pizza" became something of an oxymoron.
One solution would come from flash-freezing. The technology was developed in the 1920s by Clarence Birdseye (yes, of that Birdseye), but first used on pizza by Rose and Jim Totino (yes, of that Totino's) in the 1960s. The next big break came in 1989, when General Foods developed a patented yeast-leavened dough that could better withstand freezing and thawing by way of additives such as gums, protein film formers, and surfactants. Around the same time, manufacturers were figuring out that vacuum-sealed packaging could better preserve the flavor of crust and toppings. Kraft introduced the DiGiorno line of pizzas in 1995, followed quickly by frozen foods industry giant Shwans' Freschetta brand - pioneers in the rising crust pizza market that dominates the industry today.
In this month's issue Consumer Reports tested one hundred different frozen pizzas, all cheese (every experiment must have a control) and ranked them according to taste, value, and nutrition. In all, testers consumed more than 800 slices of frozen pizza. Ranked highest for taste were Amy's Cornmeal Crust 3 Cheese Pizza, DiGiorno Rising Crust Four Cheese Pizza, and the Chicago-style Home Run Inn Classic Cheese (is this available in Houston?).
Noticeably absent from Consumer Reports top picks was my personal favorite, California Pizza Kitchen (also from Kraft). Therefore I set out to taste the pizzas rated highest to see if I was missing out on a better frozen pie.
Amy's Cornmeal Crust 3 Cheese Pizza, $8.99 Consumer Reports Ranked: Best Taste, Most Nutritious
A pizza that's delicious AND nutritious? Is such a feat actually possible? Well, yes and no. Delicious, yes. The cornmeal crust had a unique and interesting texture that was both crunchy and chewy. And what's not to love about generous dollops of goat cheese? Light sauce did not detract from the flavor, heavy with basil and green onions. This pizza is interesting enough to be cut into small bite-size portions and served as appetizers at a party, but still left me wanting for that traditional pizza taste.
Nutritious? Well, it was the most nutritious selection in the survey, making it the least of one hundred evils. Still, 15g fat and 340 calories per serving (1/3 of the pizza, roughly two slices) ain't all that bad.
DiGiorno Rising Crust Four Cheese Pizza, $6.49 Consumer Reports Ranked: Best Taste, Best Value
While I've had plenty of DiGiorno pies before, I had never tried this particular variety (and according to Consumer Reports, this pizza outranked other DiGiorno selections), and I can honestly say the thick, gooey cheese is the closest to delivery I have experienced. The crust, while crispy on the outside, with a chewy center, was still a far cry from fresh-baked consistency. As for nutrition, 11g fat and 310 calories per serving, which is listed as 1/6 of the pizza--basically one slice. And lords knows I had two. Or three. Really, who's keeping count?
In the end, I found both impressive but neither topped my current favorite (and Consumer Reports big winner of 2002), California Pizza Kitchen's Chicken BBQ Pizza. And as the saying goes, the best one is always the one you like best.