Even before the The Ninja arrived on our test kitchen doorstep, friends offered their unsolicited opinions about modern slow cookers. "Anything with Ninja in the name sounds like it could be cool," said one. Another: "Why would anyone need a high-tech slow cooker?" We tend to agree with the latter, as our basic hand-me-down electric crock has always worked fine on those days best suited to the slow-simmering of pinto beans. Still, the idea of a tech-savvy Dutch oven is intriguing on days when we can't stay home and watch that simmering pot.
Judging by the cookbooks recently released on the subject, we're also in the midst of a slow cooker revival. Among them: In The Italian Slow Cooker (2010), Michele Scicolone inspired us to think of a slow cooker not just as a time saving appliance, but as a way to maximize flavor. America's Test Kitchen documented the Slow Cooker Revolution last year, and Kendra Bailey Morris has a Southern recipe-themed slow cooker cookbook due out next year. Scicolone, Morris, Lisa McManus: if you're reading this, we'd love to hear what you look for in a slow cooker. In the meantime, did we think the $200 Ninja (!) was worth the price?
The Competition: If you haven't checked the slow cooker offerings in several decades, the Ninja is not alone. They are available in a dizzying number of slow cookers today: Hybrid rice cookers, those with "stove-top" sautéing and browning capabilities, programmable models that automatically switch to "warm" mode after that 8 hour simmer while you're at the office. Like the Ninja, these "multi-cookers" often have the price tag to match.
The Promises: The Ninja is a 3-in-1 multi-cooker with stove-top, slow cooking and oven capabilities. Other amenities include a warm mode (up to 12 hours), the programmable feature that many slow cookers have today, and the ability to steam foods in a removable steam basket. You could also feasibly use that basket for frying, though the steam side gets the healthy sales pitch angle in company press releases ("The heated steam captures natural juices, while fat drips away for healthier foods. Cupcakes, cakes and other sweet treats can even be steam baked using half the butter or oil.").
The Pros: As with many models, you can sear meat and veggies directly in the cooker rather than in a separate pan (a handy time saver). Here, speed is the celebrated virtue, as the Ninja claims to cut cooking times "by as much as 30 to 50%" and make complete meals in 30 minutes, even with ingredients directly from the freezer. "Just add water, dry pasta, sauce and frozen meatballs for a meal in 30 minutes!" claims the infomercial (Apologies, but we had no desire to test the frozen meatball claim). The press release credits trademarked "Triple Fusion Heat" technology, which combines heat from the bottom and sides of the pot for more even and faster cooking. It also happens to be gigantic, with a 6-quart capacity. Whether that's a good thing depends on how much room you have in your freezer for leftovers.
The Cons: The price, though you can get it for $50 less if you don't buy it directly from the manufacturer (?). The size, unless you happen to have copious kitchen counter space. The banana bread steam testing results (see below).
Recipe Testing Results: We made three of our own recipes rather than those in the accompanying Ninja cookbook. Our stewed white beans were as good -- maybe even better -- in the Ninja as in our old-school slow cooker, and the programmable timer was a handy means of avoiding overcooked beans. A supper of chicken and caramelized onions in spicy tomato sauce was great. Being able to sauté and de-glaze in one slow-cooker pan was a definite early morning time saving plus, though we're still partial to Dutch oven cooking when we have the time.
The steam feature was the most interesting. Both as it offered plenty of options (low fat cooking being what the manufacturer is pushing), and the cookbook recipes include cakes and sweet breads in addition to the expected steamed vegetables/seafood. We interpreted that as a challenge to try our favorite banana bread recipe from Boston's Flour Bakery rather than a steamed banana bread in the Ninja cookbook. It didn't get a golden brown crust (to be expected) but was instead spongy with an odd purple hue to the flecks of banana. Not exactly unappealing, but let's just say we stopped at one bite. A greater issue with steam baking is water accumulation under the slow cooker lid; when you remove the lid, the pooled water drips over your baked goods. [On reflection, despite the recipe in the Ninja cookbook, why we thought baking banana bread in a slow cooker might be an interesting idea is beyond us.]
But if you're in a steamed pudding phase right now (which sounds a lot more fun than the low-fat angle the manufacturer is angling for in the recipe book), you'll probably find the feature useful. And we've got to admit, having the ability to saute, bake, steam, slow-cook and do just about any kind of cooking in this appliance, we're starting to believe that "Anything with Ninja in the name [really does] sound cool."
Best For: The college bound cook looking for an all-in-one grilled cheese, mac n'cheese, cheese fries and cheese pizza appliance; the techno-geek with a slow cooker fetish; Harold McGee types inspired by our banana bread struggles to bake molten chocolate cakes in a slow cooker steam oven.
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Incidentally, if you fall into that last category, you're in luck -- there is a recipe in the Ninja cookbook for steamed, molten chocolate slow cooker cakes. We wonder what Jean-Georges Vongerichten would think.
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