People have grown to love cooking now that healthier living became more than a hip lifestyle, but it can become a chore if you’re completely inept at culinary arts. It took me a while to learn how to create meals from scratch and I’m always open to exploring quicker methods like the adaptable multi-cooker. The Ninja Cooking System with Auto-iQ is a four-in-one appliance in an attempt to go above and beyond for hungry households.
That’s right, it’s basically a traditional slow cooker, a stove top for searing and sautéing, a steamer, and an oven for baking. Ninja has made multifunction cookers before and they are renowned for their ease of use, but they’re banking on it being adaptable to different ingredients for whatever the occasion. It definitely competes with the likes of Hamilton Beach and Crock-Pot, but damn is it a pricey choice at $149.99.
Longtime owners of the brand will see a relative bargain compared to its predecessor, and even we find it hard to balk with everything that it can do to satisfying effect. If you don’t want to bother with an old-fashioned stovetop on warming up the oven this can turn eager novices into pseudo-connoisseurs, especially if you’re after a level of simplicity for advanced cooking.
The shape is wide and rectangular with rounded edges that is nearly identical to the prior generation. To add a sense of elegance to the practicality, the design has a brushed metallic finish with a large control panel right in the center. The layout is full of soft-touch buttons that select the various cooking modes, two LED readout screens, and a single dial for immediate adjustments such as time and/or temperature. Despite the full array the approach is fairly intuitive and features an auto-off timer that can be preset or if you forget that you turned it on in the first place.
The 6-quart cooking pot is aluminum with dark nonstick coating and molded handles, it is also durable dishwasher safe. The glass lid is one area that previous owners could be envious of, because you can actually see your food without letting out any heat and thereby prolonging the cooking time. However, we noticed that the lid has a tendency to slide if you need to transport the Cooking System, essentially making the Ninja not-so travel-friendly for potlucks or whatever family dinners you’re forced to attend. You also get a nifty chrome-plated roasting rack accessory — for steam baking meat or broil it underneath.
The Ninja Cooking System is like slow cooking on steroids as I progressed through homemade recipes for testing. For meals such as pasta the Ninja works quicker than most, and offered a thoroughly enjoyable twist thanks to a golden brown crust that looks more decadent than expected. Equally, Pot roast stew when left alone produced a satisfactory meal with tender meat and cooked onions and potatoes that melted in my mouth. The recipe was well-received considering how little effort was involved to make it.
The oven and stovetop modes are another strength thanks largely to temperature adjustments. We cooked a whole chicken and it came out juicy and tender on the inside, with the meat literally falling off the bone — albeit the bird looked overcooked on the outside. My tasters thought the same but conceded that it still deserved high marks for the end result, and the fact that it did the job similar to a larger oven. If you need to sear steak or cook a frozen entrée the stovetop mode worked perfectly for me, ideal whether you opt to utilize the roasting pan or place it directly in the pot, of course you’ll have to put in the correct time and choose between low, medium, or high settings.
But the effectiveness of the Cooking System is diminished if you expect the normal options to work without interaction or basic knowledge of what food you’re trying to make. The machine can easily overcook food when settings are left on low for longer periods of time — and oddly enough, seems to get the formula right when operating at a high preset with the waiting cut in half. This is a peculiar characteristic of Ninja cooking products as a whole, but is confusing nonetheless if you do follow the recommended instructions.
Also, it’s not that travel-friend either thanks to the lid that only made to seal in the steam and not actually close; food will slosh around if you try transporting meals in your car to a very annoying degree. Another problem is that the pot is very good at conducting heat but not so much as retaining it, so you’ll more than likely have to reheat your food if the cooker decides to cool itself off.
However, none of this will matter if you cook at home and simplify the process with the Auto-iQ feature, which catalogs and streamlines specific recipes for easy meals. For people who have wanted to make entrées but are not supreme chefs this addition will get a lot of use with settings automatically calibrated to 35 specific dishes and includes a cookbook for reference. You just need to gather the ingredients and let the system do its magic in less than an hour.
The categories are centered on basic grains, poached stock & infusions, layered bowls and quick meals, of which are intended to be healthy versions of familiar breakfast and dinner picks. We tried a number of recipes including turkey lasagna, southwest chicken burrito bowl, and a cinnamon roll breakfast casserole all of which turned out filling to the appetite. For what it lacks in refinement more than makes up for in convenience.
Here’s the bottom line: the Ninja Cooking System with Auto-iQ is a device that wants to be the ultimate end-all for all traditional cooking. It is theoretically capable of replacing a stovetop or oven in minimized form and purpose, but it is an aggressive machine if you’re trying a basic slow roast to the point of overcooking it entirely. It’s not unusable but you will have to dramatically change the timing and method or watch it closely for long meals. Not only that, it’s not what I’d call the cheapest machine out there either.
Fortunately, if quickness is your thing then you’ll love the fact that you can create a complex dinner without much effort involved. It certainly beats an old stovetop or oven when eating for yourself or a small group of hungry guests, and you’ll feel like a proper chef (probably not Michelin-grade though). For this the Ninja deserves a recommendation.