Taste Test: Ready-To-Cook Meals From Blue Apron
When I was in London a couple of years ago, I remember being surprised at the number of ready-to-cook meals that stocked the shelves of supermarkets. And I'm not talking heat-and-eat, I'm talking meal kits that included every single raw ingredient down to the oil, salt, and pepper.
Conceptually, I like the idea a lot. Your food is fresher, you can cook it to suit your tastes, and it still allows you some degree of freedom in the kitchen. It's also a great product for people who enjoy cooking but don't always have time to shop (I sometimes fall into that camp).
Blue Apron, a new food delivery service based out of New York takes this concept to the next level. Rather than buying your food in a kit at the supermarket, they deliver meal kits straight to your front door. All you have to do is open them and start cooking.
The subscription-based service costs $10 per person per meal (so $60 for a three-meal package that feeds two) and the ingredients get delivered to your door once a week. They currently ship all over the Northeastern United States, and to a great deal of the South as well. (Check their delivery map to see if they ship to your area).
Available in either vegetarian or meat-based service plans, the recipes are all relatively healthy, modern-looking, and tasty. At least on paper. We decided to test them out and ordered both a meat and a vegetarian kit.
The Taste Test
First things first. The kits they send to you are pretty impressive, and opening them is kind of like digging through your stocking at Christmas. What's this cute little bag of spices? Did someone really portion out exactly 12 capers? Ooh, look, the beef is from Pat LaFrieda! I wonder if that cod will really stay fresh for up to a week in its cryovack pouch as they promised?
One of the recipes—turkey sliders with an arugula salad—we tested in our own kitchens at the Serious Eats office. The other five recipes we sent home with members of the editorial and support staff, all with varying degrees of kitchen aptitude.
Each recipe comes with a well-designed recipe card that shows a picture of the final product, a description, and an illustrated ingredients list on one side, with step-by-step photos of the process on the reverse side. Each recipe also includes a calorie count (most hover around a reasonable 500 per serving).
Every ingredient is already measured out for you. Occasionally you'll get a little tub of a pre-cooked component, such as concentrated beef base or a mirepoix demi-glace used to flavor your dishes.
Cooking techniques are all pretty simple. They get about as difficult as sauteeing some meat and vegetables. Most recipes also seem to take only one or two pots and pans, which is a nice touch.
Our turkey burgers, for instance, consisted of mixing together a few ingredients for the patties (turkey, onion, breadcrumbs), mixing together some ingredients for a sauce (mustard, ketchup, mayo, relish), leafing half a head of lettuce, and crumbling some ricotta salata and toasted hazelnuts.
Despite the abundantly clear illustrations, I accidentally added my hazelnuts to my turkey patties. It was not a bad mix.
Cooking consists of forming the patties, frying them in a skillet, and toasting the buns. You toss your salad with the provided lemon juice just before serving.
Flavorwise, we were quite impressed. Even Ed, not known for his love of turkey burgers, took a bite, declared it to be "a good sandwich," and polished it off. In fact, all of the sandwiches were finished faster than the average sandwich lasts on our tasting table.*
*It must have been the hazelnuts.
Testers who took recipes home to cook in their own kitchens reported slightly more mixed results. While all agreed that the ingredients were fresh and the instructions simple, a few fell short in the flavor department. A cheesy baked cauliflower dish, for example, was made with a couple cups of milk with only a small block of provided cheese. We would have wanted a bit more flavor there. At least the portions were large enough to feed the advertised two people, along with leftovers.
Erin liked that her cod with caponata and a fregola salad was fast, easy, healthy, and colorful, though felt the caponata could use a few more capers and the directions could be tweaked ("They have you cook the fish before the veg so it gets a little cold and dry while waiting for everything else is cooking").
Other reviews were along the same lines—mostly positive with a few complaints here and there. The only real loser was the Beef Pho recipe that our developer Tracie took home and cooked with her husband, a chef. Despite a block of beef base and a pouch of aromatics, the broth was bland (it's difficult to make good pho broth without charring vegetables, using real bones, and finishing with fish sauce), while the meat—a flatiron steak from Pat LaFrieda—ended up overcooked by the time the broth and noodles were done.
Is it For You?
It may be coincidence, but it's interesting to me that the one dish with the most complaints was the one cooked by an actual chef. Having not personally tasted the broth, I can't comment on it, but it does seem odd that a pho broth would be missing so many key ingredients.
At the same time, one strike out of six ain't half bad, and if you're the type who often finds themselves without the time to go food shopping, it may well be worth the money for you.
Have any of you other home cooks tried Blue Apron? We'd love to hear your feedback.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.