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

It doesn't slice or dice, but this Ninja's awfully nice. Read our full review.

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Ry Crist
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Ry Crist

Senior Editor / Reviews - Appliances

Originally hailing from Troy, Ohio, Ry Crist is a text-based adventure connoisseur, a lover of terrible movies and an enthusiastic yet mediocre cook. A CNET editor since 2013, Ry's beats include smart home tech, lighting, appliances, and home networking.

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9 min read

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?

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7.4

Ninja Cooking System

The Good

The three-in-one <b>Ninja Cooking System</b> 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.

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.

Get to know the Ninja Cooking System (pictures)

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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.

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

Conclusion

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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7.4

Ninja Cooking System

Score Breakdown

Performance 6Usability 9Design 7Features 8
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