The 4 secrets to crispy brown frozen pizza

Frozen pizzas make for a quick and inexpensive meal, and if you choose a good quality one, they’re tasty as well. But they’re never as good as a real pizza (and we shouldn’t expect them to be).

Still, there are things you can do to make your frozen pizza as good as it can be. For example, it’s relatively easy to improve the flavour. You can add a variety of ingredients to enhance the taste:

  • Cheese (one or more types)
  • Cured meats such as chorizo or prosciutto
  • Fresh vegetables, like onions, mushrooms or peppers (capsicum)

And more. But the more challenging issue with frozen pizza is not about the taste.

Preventing a soft frozen pizza

One of the most common complaints about frozen pizzas is that the base is too soft, or not crispy enough.

This is not a problem with pizzeria pizzas because they are cooked on a freshly made base in a scorching hot pizza oven. And I mean screaming hot – often in excess of 700°F (370°C).

So our frozen pizza is already at a huge disadvantage. It’s often par-cooked, then frozen, so any semblance of freshness is long gone. And our home ovens can’t hope to get anywhere near as hot as the oven at your favourite pizzeria.

Not all is lost though. The food scientists and engineers at the manufacturers of frozen pizzas go to great lengths to develop a product, and a home oven-friendly cooking method, that will make your frozen pizza really good.

And beyond that, there are four things you can do to make sure your frozen pizza is as crispy and brown as possible:

  1. Thaw it first.
  2. Cook it on a pizza stone, or on the rack, but not on a pan or tray.
  3. Cook it HOT.
  4. Turn the fan on if your oven has one.

These four things can make all the difference. Read on to find out how they work.

Factors affecting your frozen pizza

There are several important things you control that effect how your frozen pizza turns out:

  1. The temperature of your oven.
  2. The surface you cook it on.
  3. Whether it is frozen or thawed before you cook it.

To test variations of these factors I ran a couple of experiments with my family as guinea pigs testers.

Tested: temperature, cooking surface & thawing

For the first phase I used our favourite brand of frozen pizza. It’s a thin crust variety which is our preferred style.

Using a couple of these pizzas I experimented with four variations to how they’re cooked:

  1. Cook the pizza from frozen exactly as per the instructions on the box.
  2. Cook the pizza as per the instructions, but thaw it first.
  3. Cook the frozen pizza on a pizza stone at 530°F (275°C).
  4. Cook the pizza on a pizza stone at 530°F (275°C), but thaw it first.

By trying these four tests in one sitting we could easily compare and contrast the impact of the variations on the cooked pizza.

Tests 1 & 2 – following the instructions on the box

An hour before I began the experiment, I removed one of the pizzas from the freezer to thaw. I cut it in half, keeping one half for the fourth test.

The box directions recommended the following approach:

  • Don’t thaw the pizza – cook it from frozen.
  • Place the pizza directly on the oven rack (no pan or stone under it – straight on the grill-like oven racks).
  • Pre-heat the oven to 430°F (220°C), or 400°F(200°C) for a fan-forced/convection oven.
  • Cook it for 10 to 12 minutes until the pizza is heated through and the cheese is melted.

For the first variation I followed these instructions exactly with half of one pizza still frozen. I used the higher temperature without the fan because I know not everyone’s oven has a fan mode. I also placed half of the thawed pizza in the oven at the same time.

Results using the packet instructions

I let the pizza halves cook for the full 12 minutes, and the results were very similar. Both were thoroughly heated and the cheese had melted, and both had nicely crisp crusts and bases. There were a couple of small differences though.

Firstly, the cheese on the thawed pizza had melted more than the cheese on the frozen pizza. As a result it had spread more evenly across the pizza, and gave a better cheese pull when eating it.

The other difference was that the frozen pizza was a little soggier on top. Not by much, but there was a little more moisture sitting amongst the toppings.

From this first comparison, my preference (and my wife’s) was definitely the thawed pizza. My son didn’t have a preference, because it’s all pizza to him. More on this later.

Tests 3 & 4 – cooking the pizza on a pizza stone in a very hot oven

There are a lot of discussions and articles out there with suggestions on how to improve frozen pizza.

These two variations were combinations of the more commonly suggested approaches to improving frozen pizza, namely to cook it:

  • At a very high temperature
  • On a pizza stone
  • With the fan (convection) on.

The very high temperature is an attempt to mimic a proper pizza oven.

Similarly, the pizza stone mimics the scorching hot brick cooking surface of a wood-fired oven. The important factor here is not only how hot it is, but how well it holds the heat. Thick heated stone will barely drop in temperature when the pizza is added. Compare this with a thin baking sheet or pan, which will lose significant heat once the pizza is added. Especially if it’s frozen.

The use of the fan is to help distribute heat evenly around the pizza and circulate steam away from the pizza, helping to crisp up the base and keep the toppings a little drier.

To perform these tests, I placed the pizza stone in the lower half of my oven before pre-heating it to 530°F (275°C), which is the hottest temperature my oven will reach with the fan on.

If you haven’t used a pizza stone before this step is important. Never place a cold pizza stone in a hot oven. The thermal shock may crack or even break you pizza stone. Similarly, you should leave it in the oven to cool. Slide the pizza off the stone with a spatula instead.

How long?

With the hotter temperature the time recommended on the box was no longer relevant. Instead I just watched the pizzas until they were done, and they took a little over half as long – about seven minutes.

Results on a pizza stone in an extremely hot oven

Like the previous pair of tests, this time I also cooked half of the pizza from frozen, and half I had removed from the freezer an hour earlier.

And the results were much like the previous method, only amplified:

  • Both halves were very hot and the cheese very well melted. Indeed this time the cheese on both halves had started to brown, which didn’t happen in the cooler oven.
  • Both halves had very crispy bases and crusts. The under side of the bases was significantly more browned this time as well.

The differences again related to the cheese and the moisture content. The frozen half was a little soggier on top, and the cheese had browned considerably less than it did on the thawed half. The image below shows the difference.

Closeup of two halves of cooked frozen pizza, the one on the left more browned than the one on the right.

Tested: with and without a tray/pan

For the second experiment I tried to test the one change I suspect many people make – placing the pizza on a tray instead of on the rack. I know I  certainly used to do this, worried cheese and oil would drip all over my oven. I love eating, but I hate cleaning the oven almost as much.

Other than using a tray for one half, I cooked both halves exactly as per the packet directions.

And this time I used a cheap deeper dish pizza.

The box directions on this pizza were very similar to the other brand:

  • Cook the pizza from frozen.
  • Place the pizza directly on the oven rack (no pan or stone under it – straight on the grill-like oven racks).
  • Pre-heat the oven to 450°F (230°C), or 410°F(210°C) for a fan-forced/convection oven.
  • Cook it for 12 to 13 minutes until the pizza is heated through and the cheese is melted.

I cooked half of the frozen pizza exactly this way. I placed the other half on a tray and put it in the oven at the same time.

Results – baking tray vs oven rack

At 13 minutes the cheese on both halves was melting, but definitely not enough. In the end I gave both another 3 minutes before removing them from the oven.

After 16 minutes, both halves of the pizza looked very similar. The cheese was melted, and the toppings were hot. The difference became apparent once we tasted them.

The half cooked on the rack was, frankly, pretty good. For a cheap pizza, the base was relatively crispy and cooked nicely through. The toppings were not the same standard as our preferred brand but were still tasty and well cooked.

The half cooked on the tray was noticeably softer in the base. It hadn’t crisped up as much and the texture was chewier, and not in a good way. In addition, the toppings weren’t quite as hot, and there was a little more moisture sitting on top of the pizza.

So what happened? I imagine the tray caused two different problems.

First, it took time to heat up, meaning the base of the pizza didn’t heat up as quickly as the pizza on the rack.

And second, as the base of the pizza heated up, any steam released from the dough couldn’t escape. Trapped against the pizza, it softened the base.

What about the mess?

And what about the main reason for using a tray – preventing a mess on the floor of the oven?

The pizza on the rack didn’t drop or drip anything at all. No melted cheese, no oil from the meats, nothing at all.

And by the way, the same happened in the first couple of tests. Neither half dripped on the floor of the oven.

Would this always be the case? No, obviously not, but if your pizza is fully loaded you could always place a tray on the bottom of the oven to catch any drips.

Other ways to use a tray or pan

I know what you’re thinking. What about a perforated pan? What about pre-heating the pan?

These things would no doubt help, but there’s a reason the manufacturers recommend cooking your frozen pizza on the rack. And it’s not because they are all sadists who derive secret pleasure from making a mess of the ovens of complete strangers.

It’s because with all their testing they know the best results come from putting the pizza straight on the rack, so that the base gets the most exposure to the hot dry air of the oven.

What’s it all mean?

When cooked diligently as per the packet instructions, the pizzas were good. Not amazing, not even great, but definitely good – even the cheap one. The bases were crisp, the cheese melted and the toppings were all hot.

For many years I didn’t always find this to be true, but I think it was because I didn’t completely follow the directions. Cleaning the oven is a pain in the you-know-what. So, worried about making a mess, I always tended to cook frozen pizzas on a thin baking tray. I eventually started preheating it first, and even tried a perforated design specifically for pizzas. But it was never as crispy as I’d like, at least not after just 12 minutes.

So both of these tests taught me something really interesting.

Placing the pizza directly on the rack makes a big difference. As it thaws in the oven, the steam can easily escape, leaving the base nice and crispy. Plus, it didn’t even make a mess – no cheese or oil dripping onto the base of my oven as I had feared.

That said, taking it up a couple of notches with a hotter oven and a pizza stone can make your frozen pizza even better in my opinion (and that of my family). The base was noticeably more crisp, although possibly this could be too much for some people, especially with the thawed pizza. But the other difference which really added to the flavour of the pizza was the browning of the cheese and other toppings.

In many of my reviews I rave about the Maillard reaction, the magical change that happens when food is properly browned. This process adds deep umami flavours to food, and it worked wonderfully, browning both the base and the cheese, especially on the thawed pizza.

The browning of the toppings is unlikely related to the use of a pizza stone though. For that I think we can thank the higher temperature and the use of the fan. The hotter air, plus the fan circulating steam away from the pizza, allowed the toppings to quickly get hot enough for Maillard browning to kick in.

It’s worth noting that I didn’t try the higher temperature or the stone on the thicker-based pizza. It’s quite possible that these changes could create a problem with a thicker pizza, crisping the base too much before the pizza heats through. This is another test I’ll have to try soon.

Everyone likes something different

These tests, and their results, are based on how my family and I like our pizzas.

But pizza is, possibly more than any other food, VERY much about personal preference. Deep dish, or thin and crispy? Crispy base, or soft and chewy? And I dare not comment on the pineapple debate!

The point is, my results may not make sense for you and your family. And if you’re like my son (pizza is pizza), you simply may not care one way or the other!

3 steps to make the most of a frozen pizza

If you like your pizza crispy on the bottom and a little (or even a lot) brown on top, try the following next time you cook a frozen pizza:

  1. Thaw the pizza on the counter for an hour before you begin. Be food safe though – unless it’s cold in the kitchen, no more than this.
  2. Place a pizza stone in your oven and heat it to the hottest possible temperature. If your oven has a fan/convection mode, turn that on too.
  3. Place the thawed pizza on the hot stone. Then, watching it closely, cook it till it’s done to your liking. It will probably take no more than 6 to 8 minutes, depending on how hot your oven is.

Give it a try, and drop a comment below. I’d love to hear how it goes.

Frequently asked questions

Is it okay to cook a frozen pizza on a baking tray or cookie sheet?

Not if you want the best possible base on your pizza. The tray will trap steam and slow down cooking the base, making for a softer finish.

Do they really mean I should cook my frozen pizza straight on the oven rack, without anything under it?

Yes! This gives the best results, and is unlikely to make a mess.

Why should I use a pizza stone for a frozen pizza?

A pizza stone helps to quickly cook and brown the base of your pizza by providing high direct heat, and allowing steam to escape through the pores in the stone.

How hot should my oven be for a frozen pizza?

As hot as it can go! The hotter the better for a crispy, browned pizza.

How can I make sure frozen pizza is crispy, and not soft?

Thaw the pizza before cooking, then cook it on a preheated pizza stone at the highest temperature your oven will reach. Watch it closely though, it will cook quickly.

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