Ninja Cooking System review: Plenty of tricks in this Ninja slow cooker's arsenal

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The Good The three-in-one Ninja Cooking System brings the venerable slow cooker some new versatility, and without compromising its hallmark ease of use. It was a steady, reliable performer across all of our tests.

The Bad The Ninja was the least travel-friendly slow cooker that we tested. At $199, it's also the most expensive.

The Bottom Line If you're just looking for a simple "set and forget" countertop cooker, there's no reason to spend this much. Still, with unique functions like searing and steam baking, creative home chefs will love having the Ninja in their culinary arsenal.

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7.4 Overall
  • Performance 6
  • Usability 9
  • Design 7
  • Features 8

Slow cookers are renowned for their ease of use. Just dump your ingredients in, choose between low and high for your cooking temp, and go about your day. Set it and forget it. How do you improve upon that without compromising the simplicity?

With its three-in-one "cooking system," Ninja claims to have found the answer. As a slow cooker, it still boasts those familiar preset controls, but like any good ninja, it's ready to adapt to new situations, too. Turn the knob over to stovetop mode, and you'll be able to use it like a pot sitting on a burner -- perfect for heating up a quick meal, or for searing meat directly in the pan prior to slow cooking. On top of that, you can set the Ninja to anywhere from 250 to 425 degrees Fahrenheit and use it as a countertop oven.

The Ninja promises faster food prep with delicious results, with recipes ranging from slow-roasted chicken to steam baked chocolate lava cakes -- but it costs a hefty $199. With well-established brands like Crock-Pot and Hamilton Beach putting out highly rated slow cookers at less than a third of that price, could the Ninja really be worth it?

As my colleagues discovered with Ninja's take on the blender last year, I found that this Ninja's performance didn't disappoint. Recipe after recipe, it delivered satisfying results, usually finishing at or near the top with a majority of our taste testers. Its stovetop and oven capabilities bring new dimensions of versatility to the slow cooker, and they do it without sabotaging the appliance's calling card: simplicity. Eager home chefs could easily use the Ninja for steam baking, and that's especially exciting, given that most countertop steam ovens will cost you at least $250, if not significantly more.

If you're looking for a versatile, multifunctional cooking appliance capable of subbing for your oven or range, I'd say that the Ninja is worth the $199 price tag (and the chances are good that you'll be able to find it marked down at major retailers such as Target and Wal-mart). That said, if all you're looking for is the set-and-forget experience of a reliable slow cooker, there are less expensive models out there that will do the job just fine.

Colin West McDonald/CNET

Design and features
With a dark, attractive finish and sleek, multisetting dials, the Ninja is the visual standout. I came to appreciate the overall practicality of its design, as well. The dials are intuitive -- turn the large one to select between oven, stovetop, and slow cooking modes, then turn the smaller one to set the time and/or temperature. Turning a dial just seems simpler to me than repeatedly punching a button to add 30 minutes at a time to the clock.

The pan itself is made of aluminum and covered with a dark, nonstick coating that's dishwasher safe. During one of my tests, I made sure to let the leftover cheese burn a little bit at the bottom of the pan, then let it sit for about an hour. The nonstick coating did its job well, as the crusty mess came up with next to no effort on my part.

The design isn't perfect, though. In oven mode, for instance, you won't get any indication of whether the machine is hot enough to begin cooking or if it's still preheating -- it's either on or off, as far as Ninja is concerned. As for the pan, it doesn't have any sort of rubberized grip on its rather small handles, the way the handles on the base of the cooker do. When it comes time to pull the pan away from the heat, you'll definitely need a pair of potholders.

The lid (which, unlike the pan it covers, is not dishwasher safe) was another source of frustration, as Ninja chose to pass on glass in favor of a material that matches the body of the cooker. The result is a unified looking design, but also one that doesn't let you see your food without lifting the lid. This can be frustrating, since lifting the lid during slow cooking lets out heat, thereby extending cooking time. Additionally, the lid tends to slide off rather easily while you're moving the cooker, meaning that the Ninja isn't as travel-friendly as some of the other slow cookers we tested.

Colin West McDonald/CNET

Design quibbles aside, the Ninja's features put most slow cookers to shame. With the dedicated stovetop and oven modes and its relative ease of cleanup, it isn't inconceivable that you could cook with this thing every day -- which becomes more appealing once you consider just how much energy it takes to fire up a standard, full-size oven.

The Ninja also comes packaged with a trio of accessories, all three of which provide some additional functionality. The standalone pan seems a bit pedestrian, but given that it's perfectly sized to fit inside of the Ninja, it comes in handy once you start baking with it. Same goes for the silicone muffin tray, which worked like a charm. The chrome-plated roasting rack might be most useful of all -- elevate your meat and add some water or broth underneath, and you'll be steam baking in no time.

Colin West McDonald/CNET

Performance and usability
All of this is great, but none of it means a thing if the food doesn't taste good.

The Ninja uses 1,200 watts of power, which is a lot for a slow cooker (many low-end models will draw only a few hundred watts). Not surprisingly, this means that the Ninja slow-cooks a bit more aggressively than you might be used to. I found that on low, the Ninja brought a pan full of water up to peak temperature faster than any other unit we looked at. That peak temperature, 207 degrees Fahrenheit, is a bit hot for a low setting, but not as hot as the temperatures the other cookers we tested ultimately reached, especially the Breville Slow Cooker with EasySear, which brought the water all the way up to a rolling boil when we set it to low.