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.
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.
A professional baker works with labour saving 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. A bread machine ends with a loaf of bread and one pan to clean.
A bread machine has a heating element, a motor, and a double purpose pan – baking pan and mixing bowl – 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. The loaf has to be baked in the machine pan.
Bakers and recipe writers discuss recipes by weight of the baked loaf as small (1 lb.), medium (1.5 lb.), large (2 lb.) and extra large (2.5 lb.), Manufacturers and retail sellers refer to the volume of the pan. There have been 3 lb machines. 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 .
Manufacturers, reviewers and retail do not have a standard vocabulary for pans. The Bread Lover’s Bread Machine Cookbook 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 is probably 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 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. This may be true for customers looking for fast results. But a long cycle may bake a better loaf more consistently.
Most cycles mix and rise assuming 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 whole wheat flour are identical in density and weight, and nearly identical in starch and protein. They form gluten, ferment, rise and bake differently. Machine recipes tend to be a bit wetter than comparable home oven recipes. Many bread machines have separate cycles for basic baking (white flour) and whole wheat. Most machines have a basic bake cycle, a dough cycle and a fast 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.
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 manufacturer may call mechanical mixing “kneading”. A home baker working by hand will conceptualize mixing flour and water as a separate step from kneading dough. A professional baker can use a mechanical mixer; many home bakers may have one. A mechanical mixer or stand mixer might use a spiral dough hook in a circular or elleptical motion to move the dough. A mixer is controlled manually, and has a range of speeds. Manufacturers of mixers and bread machines may identify the power of the motor in watts, but seldom or never states the estimated rotation speed of the dough hook or paddle, in an unloaded state or in various possible loaded states.
The Bread Lover’s Bread Machine Cookbook (pages 20-21) says that a bread machine uses a few minutes at low speed to mix the ingredients and moves higher speed to work the dough and calls these steps Knead 1 and Knead 2. The length of the mixing phase is determined by the programming. A few machines have a feature to allow users to create custom settings (the Breville BBM800XL and a few Zojirushi models).
A bread machine does not have speed controls on the control panel or a component to regulate the speed of the electric motor. It has two speeds – off and on. A mixing or kneading phase will have periods of short on/off pulses, and longer on/off pulses, adding up to few minutes. This followed by periods of pulses of several seconds on, with pauses, ending in a continuous run (“on”) period of a few minutes. The machine will count down minutes and seconds to the conclusion of the cycle in the timer display. It will not display the steps in the mix or knead phase, which may be about 15 minutes or more. Mixing is not continuous, and not as fast or intense as industrial mixing can be. The dough gathers into a ball around the kneading paddle. The machine pushes the ball around the inside of the pan, squeezing and stretching it.
The dough develops gluten in the mixing phase. A baker divides dough and puts in oven pans. It has to be wet – say a hydration rate of 70% to 74%. A dry dough may not flow. A wet dough may collapse.
A shallow dive into bread baking books confirms that professional bakers may use 10-15 minutes of “intensive mixing”, the method of mechanical mixing of yeasted white flour dough for French loaves dominant in professional bakeries until Raymond Calvel devised the hybid style in the 1960s. Intensive mixing develops gluten in wheat flour and multigrain doughs. Home bakers with stand mixers use slower speeds due to limitations of machinery (stand mixer review by America’s Test Kitchen in print and YouTube) or to use a hybrid, modified or improved mixing method.
The dough rests and ferments in the rise phase. Two hours in a bread machine is short compared to the rests in some artisinal baking techniques, but compares to the combined times for bulk fermentation and proofing in making bread in many bakeries. Some bread machines provide as shorter rise; most bread machines have a fast rising cycle with a short rise.
Preparation of ingredients and loading the machine calls for attention. Panasonic suggests meauring flour by weight and fluid down to the fluid ounce. Beth Hensperger in the Bread Lover’s Bread Machine Cookbook, consistently with other baking books, list ingredients by volume but suggests weighing ingredients.
During the rise phase the gluten relaxes, allowing the ball has to flow to fill the pan and take the shape of the pan, and rise.
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.
Bread machines produce good results with white flour and whole wheat flour – baked loaves, and pizza and flatbread doughs.