Not every category of products has a “Best in Class.” In fact, very few do. But there are plenty of categories that have a quintessential standard, a product or brand that serves as the conjured mental image for anyone who ever muttered the words “Dutch oven” (Le Creuset) or “blender” (Vitamix). Of course, there just one problem with these buck-list buys: they’re hardly affordable for the everyday consumer.
Amid a sea of knock-offs, marketing trickery and glossy websites, it’s easy to get duped into compromising on products that promise much but deliver little. Luckily, we’ve done the legwork for you — the following seven kitchen products are the best no-bullshit stand-ins for the things we all drool over, but can’t all afford.
How to Buy Kitchen Tools on a Budget
In short, it’s difficult but not impossible to shop for your kitchen on a budget. The first thing to come to grips with is there will be sacrifices made and corners cut. The good news is that those sacrifices don’t have to come at the expense of product performance. When considering a suitable replacement for an out-of-reach product, much of the time you’re going to lose out in two main areas: customer service and warranty assurance.
Many new ventures are made up of smart people who make seriously great stuff that costs you fractions of their industry’s old guard, but they don’t have access to the enormous structural and financial foundations the stalwarts do. Money is allotted for product material and design above all else, as there’s typically not a budget for an army of customer service representatives or the wherewithal to honor a strong warranty. They’ll often take the direct-to-consumer model, cutting out brick-and-mortar retailers and distribution in favor of the product and the product alone. So, when you’re going through this list or doing research on your own, check on these things. See how quickly they respond to a customer service email or a phone call, read up on what their warranty covers and for how long. The goal is to find a product whose quality-to-price ratio is such that you can’t not buy it for the price, and you’re not going to be left out in the cold by a nascent, unresponsive company.
Want: All-Clad Frying Pan ($125)
Get: Made In Frying Pan ($59)
Save $66: There are plenty of big brands making middling sets of stainless steel, but make no mistake, All-Clad is very much the ruler of its category. The American company has been churning out cookware beloved to professional chefs and home cooks alike, its brushed d3 and d5 (3-ply and 5-ply) lines leading the way. But a simple 10-inch frying pan — the staple on which nearly all dishes begin or end — will set you back $125.
You can afford two pans with change to spare at Made In Cookware, which also makes its products in America, and packs a staggering amount of quality and an even more surprising level of customer service and warranty into its products. Its stainless steel is all 5-ply — the top and bottom layers are steel and the middle three are different aluminum mixes for more efficient heating. It’s also polished before brushing, an out-of-the-ordinary step that gives the finished pieces an ever-so-slight twinkle to them.
Beyond cooking, Made In flexes a seriously exceptional lifetime warranty program for any company, let alone what amounts to a startup. It nearly matches All-Clad’s limited lifetime warranty, which, given the differences in resources, is pretty great.
Want: Butter Pat Cast-Iron Skilet ($195)
Get: Stargazer Cast-Iron Skillet ($88)
Save $107: Let’s be clear — if you don’t care about a glassy, smooth surface on a cast-iron skillet, there’s no shame in getting a Lodge. If you want to be able to cook (and flip) more delicate dishes without much trouble, a pan that’s pretty enough to hang on a wall and can whip up the crispiest patato hash imaginable, keep reading.
Butter Pat’s skillets are immaculate. They’re light where they can be and heavy where they need to be, and their surface is smoother than some stainless steel skillets out there. But, the smallest model, a 10-inch skillet called the Heather, is nearly $200.
Stargazer doesn’t have a pretty website, but its machine-smoothed 10-inch skillet is $88 and cooks nearly everything just as well as the Butter Pat or any other boutique competition. It also sports elegant sloping walls that make tossing veggies (or, again, a hash) a cinch. The piece is moderately heavier than a Butter Pat of the same size, which also comes with a better seasoning straight out of the box. But making purchasing decisions around initial seasoning quality is a fool’s errand. The Stargazer is premium product wrapped in pure value.
Want: Le Creuset Dutch Oven($340)
Get: Milo Classic Dutch Oven ($95)
Save $245: What makes a quality Dutch oven? Heat-retention, balanced weight, a well-fitting lid and, perhaps most importantly, enamel coating that resists discoloration, cracks or degradation over time. That last word is what’s worth keying in on, and what makes it difficult to find a suitable replacement for a Le Creuset or Staub. Time. Those two have had decades to prove time and again that their coats of enamel will not so easily give in.
Milo is new blood (like, brand new) in the Dutch oven market, and operates at a price solidly one-third of that of the premium brands. Its ovens are polished to a stainless finish prior to a double coat of enameling and being fired two times. This process ensures the body of the piece is durable, the enamel coating is properly bonded to the iron and that the enamel isn’t going to wear away after a few months use — a Dutch oven should be an heirloom, not a product to be replaced.
The lid seals well enough to keep most of the steam and evaporating liquid in, and I didn’t notice any hot or cold spots when cooking it. The light-hue interior is a small plus, as it allows for easier spot-checking on the progress of a sear, but it bears mentioning. Lastly, though sometimes glossed over due to function-over-form types, the Milo is just plain nice to look at.
Want: Technivorm Moccamaster ($310)
Get: Bonavita ($85+)
Save $200: The Technivorm Moccamaster does everything someone who knows everything about coffee cares about and is simple enough that someone who knows little can use it. Put together piece-by-piece in the Netherlands since the ’60s, it features quality steel, glass and copper tubing, and there’s an underlying trust that the machine isn’t going to fail you.
With Bonavita, you won’t be settling or compromising much. It’s one of four manufacturers to make multiple machines that pass the Specialty Coffee Association’s hyper-rigorous certifictaion process (the Moccamaster is also SCA-certified), and they do it for pennies to Technivorm’s dollar. Bonavita offers a classic machine and a programmable version, both of which feature pre-brew blooming functionality, maintain optimal brewing temperature through the entire brewing process (195 to 205 degrees) and provide peak extraction with a wide basket and shower head water drip. This is all to say it is exquisitely engineered to make brewing a cup of coffee as simple, and as great, as possible. It also brews at the same speed as the Moccamaster (about 6 minutes). The Moccamaster differentiates itself with a copper heating mechanism (thought to last longer than the aluminum used in lower-priced machines), a significantly longer idle warming time (40 minutes vs. 100 minutes) and a five-year warranty that eclipses Bonavita’s two-year warranty.
If you’re just in it for the coffee, though, this Bonavita is a rock solid home coffee maker for the aspiring, but budget-minded, Moccamster owner.
Want: Vitamix 5200 ($400)
Get: Cleanblend Blender ($200)
Save $200: By product development standards, the world of high-performance blending was utterly dominated by Vitamix for an abnormal stretch of time. Yes, Blendtec also made super-charged blenders in that stretch, but they routinely retailed for north of $700, which somehow makes the $400 Vitamix 5200 seem reasonable.
Cleanblend is a relatively new company — opening up shop in 2013 — but its blenders suffer few beginner’s flaws. Equipped with a 3-horsepower motor, Cleanblend’s product is actually more powerful than the 5200, enabling it to chew through and liquify all manner of tiny seeds, nuts and other tiny bits. It’s also apparent they sort of ripped their look straight from the Vitamix, with a central speed knob flanked by off-on and pulse switch on either side. It comes with a five-year warranty, so you’ll lose out on two years of warranty and the Vitamix’s street rep, but you’ll keep $200 in your pocket. When all is said and done, if you’re in it for the performance over the prestige, Cleanblend’s product will serve you just fine.
Want: Custom Chef’s Knife ($500+)
Get: Kramer x Zwilling Chef’s Knife ($300)
Save $200+: Who is Bob Kramer, why is his name listed before Zwilling’s and how on earth is $300 an affordable option?
Bob Kramer, whose chef’s knives regularly auction for $5,000 or more, may very well be the finest living bladesmith in the U.S. His products are beautiful, made with incredible materials and brutally functional. So when Kramer helps design a kitchen knife that’ll cost you what you’re paying on your water bill, it’s worth paying attention.
The collaboration with Zwilling yields a chef’s knife made with 52100 steel (the same Kramer uses in custom projects), an extra-wide, easy-gripping blade and Kramer’s trademark mix of Japanese-style steel (high carbon) and German-style handle (slightly ergonomic). It’s manufactured in Japan with the help of 42 separate artisans, and finished at Kramer’s workshop in Washington. In short, this completely badass knife makes $300 seem like a bargain.
Want: The Big Green Egg (~$900+)
Get: Char-Griller Akorn ($300)
Save $600+: Kamado grills are the cast-iron cookware of the grilling arena. They take longer to heat, they’re more difficult to maintain and they’re surprisingly fragile, but they also hold heat like no other, and perform tasks other cookwares simply can’t. At the risk of being drawn and quartered by the Big Green Egg’s legion of Kamado-grilling cultists, our claim is simple: Char-Griller’s affordable Akorn grill is more than enough grill for the majority of people. Kamado grills became popular in the U.S. after American soldiers returned from war-torn Japan with knowledge of them (they’d been used for literally thousands of years in China and Japan by this point), including Big Green Egg’s founder, Ed Fisher. The idea is the egg shape of the grills usher the heat from the coals up and around the sides of the grill and back up again, creating what amount to a smoker mixed with a classic brick pizza oven.
The Akorn grill remedies the fragility issue by employing triple-walled steel as its body (powder-coated outside, porcelain-coated inside) in place of the traditional ceramics. This makes for a grill that isn’t going to crack or shatter if tipped over or tied down on the way to a tailgate, and is much, much more maneuverable. Its grates made of cast-iron, adding another level of heat retention, and, unlike a BGE, a detachable heating rack is part of the deal, too.