Ninja Cooking System review:

Plenty of tricks in this Ninja slow cooker's arsenal

This faster approach to slow cooking was evident as the Ninja progressed through our cooking tests. A simple recipe for pot roast had us cooking a 2.5-pound cut of beef on low for six hours; at the end, the Ninja's pot roast was one of the most well done, and one of the most well-received by a majority of our taste testers. Another recipe, a slow-cooked spin on macaroni and cheese, turned out to be a bit "eggy," tasting more like quiche than mac 'n' cheese, but almost all of us enjoyed the Ninja's crusty, golden brown batch more than any of the others.

This egg-centric spin on mac and cheese turned out best in the Ninja. Colin West McDonald/CNET

Not every recipe in the Ninja came out on top. After slow cooking chicken on high for four hours, the Ninja produced a dry, overcooked bird compared to the juicier, more tender results we saw from the lower wattage machines. Slow cooking white beans on low for six hours also yielded overcooked results (although the Ninja did much better when we repeated the recipe on high for three hours). And although a slight majority of our taste testers gave the Ninja's fall-apart pot roast high marks, the minority thought it was overcooked and ranked it near the bottom.

In general, the Ninja is a satisfactory slow cooker, but for simple set-and-forget recipes it can overcook. It also doesn't do enough to set itself apart from its much cheaper competitors. In some cases, it was actually outperformed by them. Take traveling for instance. The thin metal of the Ninja's pan is great for conducting heat, but not so great for retaining it. When you unplug the thing, throw it in your back seat, and drive across town to a dinner party, it'll lose heat faster than ceramic crocks, and also faster than other metal pans, such as the one in Breville's slow cooker. Better hope you don't hit traffic.

We tested this out with those white beans I mentioned. After cooking the beans for three hours on high, we let each slow cooker sit unplugged for two hours with the lid on. The Ninja lost more heat than any other cooker we tested, and it was the only slow cooker that saw the beans drop below a food-safe temperature of 135 degrees Fahrenheit. Never mind the fact that the less expensive Hamilton Beach and Crock Pot models both have lids that lock into place, along with handy, travel-friendly features like a built-in spoon rest and a nonpowered thermometer. If you're looking for a slow cooker capable of lugging your award-winning chili out to parties and events, you'd actually be worse off with the Ninja than you would with one of the others.

These sweet potato waffle fries were cooked evenly, but they weren't crisp enough. Ry Crist/CNET

Still, this Ninja is no one-trick pony, and that's more than most slow cookers can say. You won't be able to bake cookies, saute veggies, or steam roast pork loin in most slow cookers, but you will in the Ninja, thanks to its dedicated oven and stovetop modes. I tested both out, starting with the oven mode, which I used to bake a few frozen french bread pizzas, as well as some frozen sweet potato waffle fries. Both took a few minutes longer than normal, but for the most part I was satisfied with the results. Everything was evenly cooked -- especially the waffle fries, which baked to a perfectly uniform golden brown. My only complaint: they were a bit flimsy, and not nearly as crisp as you'd get in a full-size oven.

Next, I tried baking chocolate chip cookies. You can fit about five of them in the Ninja's baking pan, which works well if you're looking to whip up a quick dessert for one or two , but not ideal for making an entire batch. The cookies came out a little too gooey in the center and a little too crisp on the outside, but that didn't stop our taste testers from gobbling them all up. For fun, I tried whipping up a batch of "cookie muffins" in the Ninja's silicone muffin tray, and they disappeared even faster. Cookies approved.

Stovetop mode is a great feature. This gorgonzola gnocchi cooked to perfection. Ry Crist/CNET

Finally, I moved on to stovetop mode. With low, medium, and high settings, it's no more complicated than the Ninja's slow-cooking controls. Better still, the settings correspond perfectly with those of a standard cooktop. Everything I tested in the Ninja cooked exactly the same as it would have if I were cooking it in a pot on the stove. I tried one of my favorite quick dinners, a frozen gorgonzola gnocchi entree that's supposed to heat up in about eight minutes. After the specified time in the Ninja, it was cooked perfectly.

Stovetop mode is also ideal for giving meat a quick sear before slow cooking. Both the Ninja and the Breville allow you to sear meats directly in the roasting pan, although the Breville requires you to lift the pan out of the slow cooker and place it directly on your range. Points to Ninja for coming up with an all-in-one solution.

The Ninja doesn't have any advanced programming features, so don't plan on controlling it remotely, like you'll be able to do with the soon-to-be-released WeMo Crock-Pot. You also won't be able to set the Ninja to automatically switch from high to low at a certain point in the cooking time, although it will automatically shift into a keep-warm mode when your timer expires. It also doesn't feature a built-in temperature probe like the Hamilton Beach model does. A few more of these kinds of advanced features would have helped Ninja justify the price tag -- as it is, the justification really rests solely on the unique appeal of its oven and stovetop modes.

Colin West McDonald/CNET


The bottom line is that the Ninja is really worth it only if you're going to put that extra functionality to work. If all you need is something that'll slow cook meatballs while you're away at the the office, there's really no need to spend much more than $40 or $50. It's not ideal for overly long stretches of unattended cooking, due to its aggressiveness. If you're looking for something with a few bells and whistles, or one that's maybe a bit more travel friendly, slow cookers from Hamilton Beach and Crock-Pot will fit the bill for well under $100.

That said, if you enjoy cooking, and if you're looking for a multifunctional device that's largely capable of replacing your oven and stovetop (with much smaller volume, of course), the Ninja makes a lot of sense. As for me, a guy who lives in a small apartment with an inefficient old electric oven, I certainly see the appeal and could imagine myself cooking quick dinners in the Ninja at least a few times a week, if not more. If this sounds like you, then the Ninja deserves your consideration.

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