Many proteins refold in vitro through kinetic folding intermediates that are believed to be by-products of native-state centric evolution. These intermediates are postulated to play only minor roles, if any, in vivo because they lack any information related to translation-associated vectorial folding. We demonstrate that refolding intermediate of a test protein, generated in vitro, is able to find its cognate chaperone, from the whole complement of Escherichia coli soluble chaperones. Cognate chaperone-binding uniquely alters the conformation of non-native substrate. Importantly, precise chaperone targeting of substrates are maintained as long as physiological molar ratios of chaperones remain unaltered. Using a library of different chaperone substrates, we demonstrate that kinetically trapped refolding intermediates contain sufficient structural features for precise targeting to cognate chaperones. We posit that evolution favors sequences that, in addition to coding for a functional native state, encode folding intermediates with higher affinity for cognate chaperones than noncognate ones. © 2012 Elsevier Ltd.