Depending on when and where you grew up, the term “direct-to-consumer retail” can bring up memories of Tupperware parties or some more contemporary success stories in home furnishings, fashion and beauty. (Think Casper or Glossier.) For decades, the concept has remained relatively the same: offering high-quality products at a relatively lower price by marketing, selling and shipping to buyers rather than through a store.
In the last couple of years, though, one category of the DTC retail market has positively burgeoned: cookware. And not just sauce pots and sauté pans. From dutch ovens to silicon skillets, premium-quality chef knives to sheet pans, new startups in the kitchen gear game are popping up, promising All Clad and Le Creuset-like quality for a (relatively) more accessible price. By my count right now, there’s almost a dozen operating in North America. About seven of those ship to Canada, with new ones offering service here regularly.
I’ve been cooking with gear from some of these startups to see if they deliver on the DTC promise. Made In Kitchen, Material Kitchen, Misen and Abbio provided samples of their offerings for me to test out over the past eight weeks.
When it comes to pricing, the offerings vary. Let’s take a standard five-piece cookware set: All-Clad’s d3 stainless steel bundle of a sauté pan, fry pan (with lid) and sauce pan (with lid) runs from $550 (on sale) to $650 (regular price) in Canadian retail. The same version by Misen is $307, Material Kitchen’s is $341, and Made In’s, which includes a stock pot as well, is $660. Abbio’s only set, meanwhile, is eight pieces for $391. While tax, shipping and duties for each of these sets varies depending on where you live—adding up to roughly $100 to $125—the entire cost of a DTC set, including shipping, is still less than one purchased through traditional retail.
When it comes to performance, my current kitchen set-up—a hodgepodge collection of $20 specials from Canadian Tire and a single prized All-Clad skillet—offers a pretty good range of comparison. And so, from fried eggs to risotto, seared vegetables to one-pot pasta dishes, I put these DTC products through their paces. They’ve been on the stove, they’ve been in the oven, they’ve even gone in the dishwasher. After about two months, here’s what I’ve learned.
Made In Cookware
What we thought: Launched in 2017 by two childhood friends in Austin, Texas, Made In cookware offers one of the widest product ranges of the DTC cookware brands out there: stainless steel, non-stick, and carbon steel cookware (a lightweight alternative to cast iron and stainless steel); knives; sheet pans; butcher blocks and utensils. Shortly after it first launched, the brand was praised for its quality of construction, but a Wired test found its pans had a tendency to “dome up” and pool cooking oil at the sides of the pan, a problem that seems to have since been fixed. In the six weeks I spent cooking with both the stainless steel and non-stick fry pans, I didn’t experience this problem at all. Through searing, quick-frying—and in the case of the non-stick, dry-frying a cracked egg—the pans held up very well.
Both Made In and Abbio’s (more on that later) stainless steel pots and pans bloomed a rainbow-like staining after washing them thoroughly in hot water—especially so if run through the dishwasher. A quick swipe of vinegar and baking soda fixed that quickly in both cases, but if you’re cooking with these pans most days of the week, a pristine metal sheen isn’t something you should be too worried about. Among all the pots and saucepans I tried, Made In’s brought water to the boil the fastest. Its pans were also the lightest of the bunch.
Standout item: 10 Inch Blue Carbon Steel Frying Pan, ($112)
While carbon steel cookware has been around for some time, it’s starting to see a resurgence in Western home kitchens as it’s lighter and more affordable than cast iron pans and conducts heat just as well. Made In’s frying pan version came naked, meaning it required a thorough coating of the seasoning wax provided and an hour-long roast in a hot oven before it was ready to go. But once it was? With the heat cranked up, this pan got hot. Blisteringly hot. Like, perfectly charred tomatoes and peppers you’d otherwise need a gas stove flame for hot. The deep walls also help it function as a kind of stubby wok—though Made In makes a carbon steel wok, too—which worked well for small stir fries. No wonder it keeps selling out.
What we tested: The Fundamentals Kit ($238) Includes: 8-inch knife, 3.5-inch knife, tongs, wooden spoon, metal spoon, slotted spatula and a wooden base. 29, Your Way Kit ($341) Includes: choice of three pieces from a list of stainless steel and non-stick skillets, sauce pots and sauté pans.
What we thought: Straight up: Material’s sauté pan and non-stick skillet performed the best out of almost every piece of equipment I tested for this series—largely thanks to their smart design. The non-stick skillet fried eggs with the least resistance; the curved edge of the sauté pan makes pouring much easier (pots and sauté pans also have spouts for the same reason). There are interior markings at four- and eight-cup levels to let you know how much volume your pan is holding, and the interior of its non-stick skillet is a beautiful forest green—a completely aesthetic detail that has nothing to do with its performance, but makes cooking with it fun.
Unlike its classmates, which are made with aluminum cores wrapped in stainless steel, Material Kitchen’s cookware is copper-cored, which is generally more expensive. But when bought as a three-piece bundle, it’s still comparable in price to its counterparts.
Some of the accessories from the Fundamentals Kit, a starter bundle of utensils and knives, didn’t fare so well. While I loved the tongs’ clever locking device, the lack of rubber coated tips make them unsuited for gripping softer things like fish or cooked pasta. The spoon, meanwhile, needed consistent conditioning with food-grade oil or beeswax or else it dried out completely and risked cracking—by week four, the bowl of the spoon ended up splitting in two.
Standout item: The 8-Inch Knife ($102)
Right out of the sheath, the paring version of the knife ($68) could easily skim off the trickiest of peels—grapes, cucumber, ginger—and the handle’s weight and shape felt not unlike many fancier Japanese brands which can cost upwards of three to four times the price. It’s hard to describe the kind of muscle-memory confusion my hands felt at being able to dice an onion in half the time it normally takes. Apparently I’ve been cooking with duller knives than I thought for most of my life.
What we tested: The Set ($391) Includes: a small non-stick skillet, large non-stick skillet, saucepan, sauté pan, and stock pot.
What we thought: Abbio is one of the latest entries to the DTC cookware genre; its name a diminutive version of abbiocco, the Italian word for being so full you feel like you need to take a nap. Best English translation? Food coma.
Just like the rest of the group, Abbio’s stainless steel cookware heated up quickly and evenly, and washed well. One feature Abbio bests its competition in is handle design: The side handles on the sauté pan and stock pot curve further out from the body to make holding the whole thing easier, while helping to avoid burning your hands. (For pots and pans meant to transition from stove to oven, this is no small detail.) I also found myself cooking from the set’s saucier pan the most: It’s higher-walled than Material’s, making it great for stove-to-oven casseroles and one-pot pastas.
There is, however, one caveat: the standard size of Abbio’s stainless steel offerings aren’t huge. The saucepan held about one litre of water, the sauté pan roughly one and a half, and the stock pot just over three. While this makes the set a great option for small kitchens and households, it isn’t ideal for anyone who regularly cooks for three or more people and expects leftovers.
Standout item: Abbio’s messaging has consistently been about kitchen minimalism, and this holds true of its product line, too: aside from offering every piece of The Set separately, the company doesn’t sell anything else. “The cookware industry has trained consumers to think that more = more; a 21-piece set is better than a 15-piece set, which is better than an 11-piece set. But the reality is most of that cookware goes unused and takes up precious cabinet space,” co-founder Jonathan Wahl wrote to me. I think, for this reason, it’s fair to call The Set Abbio’s best offering. For an overall performance comparable to the others at a far lower price, it’s a great deal—one that arrives with a nice added extra: Each pan, whether bought separately or as a set, comes with a foldable silicon trivet.
What we tried: Essentials Bundle ($587) Includes: saucier pan, sauté pan, 10- and 12-inch skillets, 8-quart stockpot, chef’s knife, paring knife, and a serrated knife.
What we thought: Another DTC cookware company with a culinary namesake (Misen is derived from mise en place, the French term for having everything at a cooking station in its place), Misen first jumped on the scene in 2015 with a Kickstarter fundraiser for a $65 USD chef’s knife that promised a Japanese-style 15-degree blade angle with a handle more suited to Western-style pinch grip cutting motion. Since then, the company has expanded to cookware and bundled sets.
The knife Misen originally launched with is not the one I tested out, as the company has since changed its design. While the chef’s knife I tested was a truly sharp, quality blade, it wasn’t always comfortable to use: the cut of the steel that adjoins to the handle was more sharply curved than the Material knife or my well-worn Henckels, meaning that in order to grip it properly I had to keep my forefinger further up the blade and not on the handle itself. For a lot of people this may not be a problem. But for small-handed home cooks like me, it’s something to keep in mind if you’re used to powering through produce with an eight-inch knife.
As for the stainless steel cookware: From saucier to skillet, they were a dream to cook with. Like Abbio, all handles extended further from the body of the pots and pans. But, unlike any of the other brands I tried, a lid came with each piece of cookware—even the 12-inch skillet. Of all the cookware I’ve tried, the Misen set also stayed the most stain-free.
Standout item: 12-inch stainless steel skillet, $102
One of my favourite things to do on a weekend is making a full breakfast in a single pan. Eggs, bacon, maybe potatoes, and definitely a mountain of greens thrown in at the end to cook in the drippings. The way this skillet’s walls are curved helps it fit more food on the pan than I’ve been able to with my regular pan, and it heats up just as evenly as my All-Clad. While it’s a little on the heavy side, my arms don’t mind the workout.
What we tried: Classic 5.5 qt Dutch Oven ($164)
What we thought: Shortly after we published a roundup of the best Dutch ovens available for under $100, this DTC startup started shipping its cast iron wares to Canada. Similar to those options, Milo suggests that you don’t need to pay Creuset or Staub prices for similar quality in enameled cast iron cookware or cast iron pans.
The 5.5 quart dutch oven Milo sent me ended up being very good proof of this claim. In the time I’ve been cooking with it, it’s baked bread in a 500-degree oven, made countless tomato-based sauces and stews, roasted a few chickens, and has also proven a great option for deep(ish)-frying things in oil. The version Milo sent for testing is white; after two months, there still isn’t a scratch or stain on the interior of the enamel, despite having metal spoons and whisks and a host of other things my three-year-old likes to throw in it while playing chef.
There is one functional thing about its design, though, that set it apart from the Creuset standard: Its handles are small and hug a little too close to the body. This makes taking it out of the oven slightly awkward—but more importantly, it means they get untouchably hot with prolonged stovetop use, meaning I need to use potholders or towels while handling it for a stovetop braise. At less than half the price of Creuset’s same model (and for, if you’ll excuse the vain confession, a far prettier look), I’m OK with the tradeoff.
I don’t think it’s a cop-out to choose to say all of these brands ended up being great quality; the best one will truly depend on the gear you already have and how you tend to cook. For me, that’s meant three things: the Abbio set had me cooking with sauté pans more than I ever might have, while Material’s finally convinced me to spend more time working on my knife skills. If you’re looking for a full kitchen set without worrying too much about shopping around for add-ins, Misen and Made In offer the most versatile packages; Material Kitchen’s individual pans and knives, to me, were the best performance for the price; Abbio, meanwhile, offers the best deal in a quality, compact package.