In 2005, my friend Mike bought an old and unreliable Infiniti G20 sedan in England for the equivalent of $750, did some emergency repairs, then drove it across Europe and down to Senegal. That was a long time ago, and now that I think of it, I wonder if he ever showered on that trip. But he recently took one look at the slow cooker I was reviewing and immediately wished out loud that he’d had it with him.
“We had a plug in the back,” he said, reminiscing about cooking eggs on the radiator and eating uncooked ramen noodle packs. “This would have been perfect.”
Mike and I were marinara-making, getting ready to enjoy the kind of deep-flavored food you can make simply by letting something cook quietly over the course of the day. The appliance we used worked like an old-school slow cooker, but it looked like none I’d ever seen.
The Presto Nomad is a short, squat machine that looks more like an Igloo Playmate cooler than a Crock-Pot. With a low, rectangular body, a large carry handle that swings up over the top, and eye-catching colors, it’s like they told a chef and a children’s toy designer who’d never heard of a slow cooker to invent one, adding one stipulation: that it be made to travel.
Slow cookers have struggled a bit trying to compete with the growing popularity of electric pressure cookers, many of which can also slow cook, albeit not always as well. Yet slow cookers’ convenience is undeniable: throw a few ingredients in a pot in the morning and return home to something with deep flavor that beats the pants off of most stuff you could blitz through after work.
In terms of cooking functionality, the Nomad is barely different from the slow cooker you grew up with. It has “warm,” “low,” and “high” settings on its dial. Its “crock” is a nonstick aluminum “cooking pot” that is heated with an element that runs around its sidewall.
The big difference is in the design of the thing, especially that low, cooler-like body, a large, flat lid with a glass window, and the huge handle that clamps the lid shut. It’s peculiarly interesting to see new life and whimsical thinking thrown into a staid genre by a company that isn’t known for innovation.
Like the Balmuda toaster, the fun, two-tone design of the Nomad makes your countertop a happier place. My wife Elisabeth took to calling it “the cute little red thing.” I think it’s going to be the belle of the ball come tailgating season.
When you want to hit the road with the Nomad, flip up that handle to lock the lid in place, tuck the power cord back into its slot, and it’s ready to roll. Stick it in the trunk or take it for a walk—then compare it to that old one in your pantry with its rattling lid and the way you have to hold it between someone’s feet so the lid doesn’t fall off in the car on the way to Uncle Charlie’s house. Yes, some newer slow cookers have clips to hold their lids in place, but the Nomad’s low center of gravity and one-handed ease make it much better suited to travel. As one Amazon reviewer put it, the Nomad is “the only way to eat ten sloppy joes in your car.” My friend Mike would approve.
None of that would make any difference if it struggled in the kitchen, but in my testing it didn’t. Along with that marinara, I braised chicken thighs in kimchi, had fantastic mac and cheese for lunch several days in a row, and made a lovely Spanish tortilla. Every recipe I cooked finished in the recipe’s estimated cooking time. No dishes required special treatment. In fact, for most reviews, I take pages and pages of cooking notes, but I barely took any on the Nomad because it worked exactly like it should. I came to think of it like a new kid on the block who behaved like a grown-up.
One thing I learned during this testing is how the heat settings on slow cookers work, and I turned to an expert to help me figure it out.
“On the high setting, more energy is produced to heat the food both faster and to a slightly higher temperature than on the low setting,” explained Caitlin Huth, a nutrition and wellness educator at the University of Illinois Extension in Decatur. Huth explained that “low” and “high” settings are misnomers that might be better labeled “slow” and “a little faster.”
Really, if you think of the temperature just below boiling as a destination that both of them are heading toward, on most machines high just gets there faster than low. In the Nomad, it took just over five hours on low to bring four quarts of room temperature water up to about 200 degrees Fahrenheit, while the high setting took only 3.75 hours.
(Also, this isn’t a knock against slow cookers, but more of a PSA: during low-temperature cooking and while you’re transporting your meal, keep food safety in mind and avoid lingering in the danger zone between 40 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit.)
Along with its portability, the Nomad features bells and whistles like a detachable spoon rest and a tiny dry-erase board and marker next to the dial so you can write “TUNA NOODLE CASSEROLE!!!” on the front and everyone will instantly know what goodness lurks beneath the potato chip crust.
The Nomad has some deficiencies, most notably that the height of the cooking pot makes slow-cooking a whole chicken or ribs—which are doable in a taller 6-quart oval crock—challenging or impossible in the 6-quart Presto (4 1/4 inches high) cooking pot, though there’s more room (5 3/4 inches) in the 8-quart model. I’d also prefer a glass crock instead of the metal nonstick, but that would make the whole shebang notably heavier and less transportable. For now, there are two models; the 6-quart is white and red, and the 8-quart is white and an odd tan color. I wish the 8-quart had other color options. I also wish there was a little “power” light to indicate that it was on; More than once, I turned the dial to “low” and walked away without having remembered to plug it in.
Really though, you’d get over those faults in a heartbeat the first time you packed it up to go tailgating or just walked it up the hill to the neighbors’ place for a potluck.
The Nomad isn’t necessarily the best slow cooker out there. It doesn’t have the programmability of most modern models. It didn’t work noticeably better or worse than others I’ve used in the past, but since it has the basics down, head-to-head testing isn’t the point. What I’m so enamored with is its complete rethink of slow-cooker design. The Nomad is blazing a new trail for slow cookers and I hope the rest of the industry follows.
Food writer Joe Ray (@joe_diner) is a Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of The Year, a restaurant critic, and author of “Sea and Smoke” with chef Blaine Wetzel.