Home-cooking kits have become big business, with companies like Blue Apron shipping pre-measured ingredients and recipes straight to the homes of millions of subscribers. Market leader HelloFresh alone says it sends 7.5 million meals a month to 850,000 aspiring chefs around the world.
But are they any good? And do you get what you pay for? We asked Chef Richard Corrigan and his executive chef, Alan Barrins, to prepare meals from four companies in the kitchen of his Michelin-starred London restaurant, Corrigan's Mayfair.
"Let HelloFresh take care of the meal planning and grocery shopping, leaving you with just the fun part of cooking," the website suggests. We opted for Jamie's Sicilian Cauliflower & Chickpea Stew, a Jamie Oliver recipe that came as part of a three-meal Veggie Box at £36 ($47). Delivery is free.
The ingredients are neatly packaged and the recipe is clearly laid out, though lacking in detail. Corrigan is impressed by the quantity of the ingredients: "This is 'fill your fridge with Jamie,'" he says. But he reckons the chickpeas need added zest and olive oil.
Corrigan: "It's a nice plate of food but needs a little bit more seasoning than in the recipe: more chili and garlic in there would do a ton of good. The ingredients are good, and there are plenty of them. But there's an awful lot of packaging and waste."
Marley Spoon, the German company that recently announced a partnership with Martha Stewart, offers seasonal recipes and flexible prices, depending on how much you order. We went for two dishes: Lemon baked trout with borlotti bean salad & baguette. Our bill came to £29.80. Delivery is free.
The ingredients are neatly packaged, the fish well-chilled and the cooking instructions clear and comprehensive. The salad is colorful and the meal looks attractive on the plate. But Corrigan is troubled by the fact the fish is farmed and by the instructions to wrap it in tinfoil and bake it in the oven.
Corrigan: "The salad is nice. It is quite girly and healthy until you get to the bread. But there is something Marks & Spencer 1978 about the recipe for the fish. I thought that was when parsley disappeared. Clearly, these chefs are retired and out in suburbia. It's a lot of flapping about for two little pieces of fish you could put under the grill. I guess they are engaging with people to wrap them in tinfoil so that they think they are cooking. Visually, it looks great. With a glass of wine out in the suburbs, you'd feel great. But it's supermarket fish with supermarket salad. "
This is the super-premium end of the market. Goose Box delivers the goods to make restaurant-quality meals from 1 Lombard Street in London's financial district. We ordered a bunch of dishes for two: Garlic snails with a potato basket (£23); chicken with bulgur wheat (£25); pistachio tart (£15); and ashanti fondant (£15). This might feed four people with moderate appetites willing to pay £78, plus delivery rates, which vary based on location.
The branded packaging is attractive. The recipe is almost idiot-proof, taking you through the process step by step. Even the spices are perfectly measured out and wrapped. Half the work is done for you: There's more assembling than cooking.
Corrigan: "This is a restaurant in a box: No shopping, no chopping. Look at the salad, with all those micro herbs. If you have that on your table at home, it's pretty impressive, isn't it? It is delicious. The ingredients are top-notch. That fondant is very nice, and the pistachio is very accomplished.
"I love the whole idea, but I would question the value. You need to be very lazy, very busy or extremely rich. Is there a market for this? I'm glad you paid, because I'd feel a bit hard done by. If you are going to spend this kind of money, you might as well go a restaurant."
Farmison & Co
This North Yorkshire-based company says it delivers "an American-style meat feast" from heritage breeds to your door. We tried the NYC Rib Chop & Chips at £29.95. Standard delivery is £5.85.
The meal description said it would include "home-made fries," and they weren't kidding: We open the box to find unwashed, uncut potatoes, along with the mushrooms, tomatoes, shallots and a jar of mustard. The recipe called for some ingredients that aren't included, such as goose fat and sea salt.
Corrigan: "Make your own chips? And wash your own spuds as well? This is the earthier side of home cooking. The recipe isn't good. Anyone who suggests putting a tomato in the oven for four hours needs to be taken out and hit with the shovel that dug the spuds. You want to turn on your stove and cook everything in 20 minutes. The cooking times for the steak are too long as well, and the meat is very fatty, with a lot of waste. [The meat is] very young. It's supermarket quality. There is nothing magical about it."
The Finished Dishes Corrigan's Tips: Don't be afraid to use more olive oil, especially on dry ingredients such as couscous Try more seasoning, such as chili and garlic. Be careful not to overcook the meat, which seems possible based on the recipes we received. Get out and buy the ingredients yourself. Once you get comfortable with cooking, you can get a better cut of meat from a great butcher.