Bread baked at home, whether in a machine or a conventional oven can be better than many retail offerings available in grocery markets. A home baker can bake for dietary goals e.g. low sodium. Lacking preservatives, home baked loaves have a shorter shelf life.
Bread machines came on the market about 1986, and became popular outside Japan by the late 1990s. My first bread machine was a Black & Decker B1561. I replaced it with a Panasonic SD-YD250 in 2016.
There are well informed and thoughtful reviews on the Web – buried under superficial reviews with thoughtful SEO. Comprehensive comparative reviews are rare; comparative reviews are usually gateways to marketing sites. Consumer Reports may never have done breadmakers or bread machines. Culinary magazines tend to snip and snipe. The reviews at Breadmakerguides.com are throrough and informative, but the site is not comprehensive. The New York Times affiliate Wirecutter site tackled the subject periodically (eg. 2019), but only covers a few machines.
The best approach is to look for reviews of machine by name and model. A good machine can be had for under $100.00. A more expensive machine may have more features, but many features are low value buttons and pre-programmed settings. The main ingredients are flour, water, leaven (yeast or other). A bread machine has a heating element, a motor, and a pan that is both mixing bowl and baking pan mounted to the frame. The bowl has a paddle shaped mixing device (it may be called a dough hook or kneader) connected to the power train by a shaft in sealed bearings at the bottom of the pan. Even the best built machines do not necessarily withstand the strains of being used 2 or three times a week for more than a few years.
A professional baker works with technology with hundred of kilograms of flour and water, with some control over parts of the process – how long to mix, rest, bake and control over temperature. A home baker works at a smaller scale, with control of time and oven controls, and may have machines to mix dough or store it while it rises. A home baker may put the loaves in bread pans or shape the dough by hand before baking it in the oven. A home baker needs space, several vessels or machines to mix and rest dough, baking pans and an oven. Bread machine makes one loaf at a time. One pan to wash. Modern machines have durable no-stick coatings.
Bread machines are described by reference to the baked loaf as small (1 lb.), medium (1.5 lb.), large (2 lb.) and extra large (2.5 or 3 lb.) (a 1 pound loaf would be regular in a bakery; 1.5 pounds would be large) . These terms to describe the volume capacity of the pan. Typically, a small loaf made of wheat flour would have 2 cups of flour; a medium loaf 3 cups, and a large loaf 4 cups. The Bread Lover’s Bread Machine Cookbook (Harvard Common Press, 2000) calls bread machine pans tall, vertical rectangle, and horizontal. The tall pan has one paddle in the middle at the bottom, and may be square or oval. A machine that makes small and medium loaves will have a “tall” pan. A machine that makes large loaves will be vertical rectangle or horizontal. A machine that make extra large loaves – e.g. Panasonic 250 or 2500 models; Breville Custom Loaf XL – is probably vertical rectangle.
A bread machine does not bake quite as hot as kitchen oven; any machine puts out enough heat to bake the dough completely without burning the crust. The pan shape dictates the shape of the loaf. Most machines that bake 1.5 or 2 pound loaves have a “tall” vertical pan. This loaf is manageable it can be bagged and handled. Machines with horizontal pans roduce loaves shaped like bread produced in a bakery. These pans have to have two paddles and complex drive trains. There are machines that bake 2.5 and 3 pound loaves. These loaves may be the right amount to feed a family – but they will make the consumer to handle this bread differently than bread purchased from a bakery or a store.
In bread machines, as in industrial bakeries, the product depends on the recipe, the process and accurate measurement. Beth Hensperger in the Bread Lover’s Bread Machine Cookbook, consistently with other baking books, list ingredients by volume but suggests weighing ingredients.
A user selects a baking program or “cycle”. A basic cycle could be from 3 to 4 hours, depending on the machine. Some reviewers say a long cycle is a drawback – for customers looking for fast results. But a long cycle may bake a better loaf more consistently.
Most cycles assume and require the use of high protein wheat flour and yeast to biologically ferment dough. High protein white flour (bread flour or Canadian All Purpose flour) and regular grind whole wheat flour (coarse ground is available) are similar in density, weight, starch and protein but form gluten, ferment, rise and bake differently. Whole wheat flour has bran and wheat germ. In traditional baking, it has to be mixed longer to distribute fluid and ensure hydration. There are different approaches to kneading, with some favouring less and others more. The BLBMC and some sources assume that a whole wheat bake cycle involves a longer kneading time and a longer rise. Total “kneading” time is a confusing indicator. Kneading is a succession of stop and go operations of the motor and drive train. Some machines work the dough hard, in short bursts.
Most bread machines have cycles for basic baking (white flour) and whole wheat baking, and dough cycles that omit the final baking phase. Many machines have a cycle manufacturers call Bake (Rapid), Turbo, Quick Bake, Rapid, etc. for fast fermentation. Most machines have a cycle that bakes or mixes and bakes batter. This may be called “bake cake” but is appropriate for bread leavened with baking powder or baking soda.
Gluten free settings get some space on the packages. Gluten free bread is mixed but not kneaded (kneading develops gluten from protein in flour made from wheat and a few other grains); it is leavened with chemical leaven e.g. baking powder. Some machines have settings that mix ingredients and bakes. This can be called Quick Bread and would be use for corn bread and other loaves that are not knead. Some machines have a Cake setting that bakes a wet mix. That’s what gluten free bread machine baking means. The best bread machine(s) for gluten free bread: a mixing bowl, a wooden spoon, a baking pan and an oven.
The machine will count down minutes and seconds to the conclusion of the cycle in the timer display, but the display will probably not provide other indications of the machine’s progress. Many bread machines appear to sit and do nothing for a half hour or an hour after being started in a rest phase. Some machines may use the heating element for a few seconds at a time, to create a warm temperature, to warm the ingredients to a common temperature.
The first active phase is mixing and/or “kneading”, about 20-30 minutes or more. The ingredients have to be mixed into dough and then worked to develop gluten. A home baker mixes before kneading – manually mixing flour, water and other ingredients in a bowl before moving it or using a mechanical method (dough hook in stand mixer) to stretch and folding it on itself, pushing it and repeating the motion for several minutes. A professional baker will probably use a mechanical mixer; many home bakers may have one. A mechanical mixer or stand mixer uses mixing arms, a paddle or a spiral dough hook in a circular or elleptical motion. A mixer is controlled manually, and has a range of speeds. With a stand mixer, the baker uses a slow speed to mix the ingredients and then mixes at a higher speed to knead. The bread machine has changes from rapid short pulses to longer runs, broken by short pauses. The BLBMC calls initial slow mixing Knead 1 and mix/knead Knead 2. The initial mix is only a couple minutes long. There may be a pause between these parts of the phase. The machine will not identify these steps on the machine display.
If the user has not loaded the machine properly, the dough will be wrong after the initial mix. It has to be wet – enough, but not too wet. A dry dough will not, knead, flow and rise. A wet dough may collapse. A dough may be saved by the addition of water or flour during the initial mix and before the knead/mix starts – or ruined by an excessive or untimely intervention. Ideally, the machine should be paused and then allowed to return to mixing. Stopping and restarting the machine will go back to the start of the initial rest. It will eventually get back to mixing, but time will be lost, gluten will have started to form, and some fermentation will have occurred.
Some machines have a pause function on the panel; some can be paused by pulling the plug and using the power interrupt. The machine will resume where it stopped – if it has that feature!
The designers will have set the program for what they regard as optimum handling of white flour in the “basic” cycles and whole wheat flour in the whole wheat cycles. Some machine allow users to create custom settings (e.g. the Breville BBM800XL and a few Zojirushi models).
Professional bakers with industrial mixers may use 10-15 minutes of “intensive mixing” – the mechanical mixing of yeasted white flour dough dominant in professional bakeries for French loaves until Raymond Calvel devised the hybid style in the 1960s. Intensive mixing develops gluten in white flour rapidly. Home bakers with stand mixers use slower speeds due to limitations of machinery (see the stand mixer review by America’s Test Kitchen in print and YouTube) or to use a hybrid, modified or improved mixing method.
The dough ferments in the rise phase. The gluten relaxes and flows to fill the pan and take the shape of the pan. The yeast ferments the starch which produces gas that is trapped in little gluten balloons, which makes the dough rise. A baker divides dough and puts in oven pans. Two hours in a bread machine is short compared to the rise/rests in some artisinal baking techniques, but compares to the combined times for bulk fermentation and proofing in making bread in many bakeries.
The heating element is switched on for a bake phase in a bake cycle; there are dough cycles that stop after mixing or rising. The dough springs into space above the dough when the baking element is turned on. The machine powers the element. The designer expects the machine to reach the right temperature with that element heating the air inside that space – there is no direct temperature control setting in most machines.
Bread machines produce good results with white flour and whole wheat flour – baked loaves, and pizza and flatbread doughs.