Bread Machines: Love Them or Hate Them

Reader Contribution by Sue Van Slooten
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Upper Canada Village Flour Mill by Sue Van Slooten

Let’s just begin by saying, I have gone through more than my fair share of bread machines. The newer ones surely aren’t as robust as the older ones, but then, that’s true with most things. In today’s machines, I find the quality just isn’t there, mostly in the motors and bearings. They can’t take heavier bread dough too often. I’ve gone through four machines in the last five years or so, and it doesn’t seem to matter how much you spend on one, the brand name, or anything else. They just don’t last. The one I have now is about two years old, going fine, but then, I try not to tax it too often with heavy doughs such as whole wheat or multigrain breads. It’s fine for basic white, sweet, and pizza doughs, and even does a reasonable quick bread. Haven’t tried it on the jam cycle yet (I prefer a stove for that process).   

The rap sheet. Five years ago as a birthday present I received one of those bread makers that is also a convection bread baker. Lasted one and half years, until the bearings went. It was still under warranty, so they gave me a brand new replacement. It also lasted one and a half years, suffering the same fate of its predecessor. I decided to switch brands after that (the warranty was dead after three years). Went with a machine that promised to do four mini baguettes at a time, (which it does very well actually). So home it came, I took it out of the box, read the manual (yes, I actually did), and it said to make a test loaf first to get the feel of the machine. So I did as I was told, put all the ingredients in, plugged it in, pushed “Start,” and bang. Bang bang bang. Really loud, scary bangs. In rapid succession. Yank the plug, as the machine was bent on destroying itself. I had never met a suicidal bread machine before. Called the manufacturer, and the nice man on the other end of the phone assured me the motor was shot. “But I just took it out of the box!” I protested. No matter, just take it back to the store. The manager at the store assured me the bearings were probably gone as well. Wow. This is impressive. I was given a new one, the one I currently own. Like I say, I’ve learned my lesson:  It gets babied. And after this one goes, I doubt I’ll replace it.   

How well do machines perform? When choosing your machine, most have various features of interest, like dough, jam, cycles, etc., besides the usual suspects in bread.  Let me warn you that you should know something about how real bread is made, because some of that knowledge will come in very handy when using your machine. The first requirement is to measure accurately. Bread machines are fussy creatures. Place all your ingredients into the pan in the order recommended by the manufacturer; push your settings for cycle, crust colour, and weight. This is where the knowledge comes in:  You really should have a good idea of what proper dough looks like and how it feels. I find I have to always make some adjustments to the mix, usually having to add in more water, but sometimes additional flour. People who don’t relish the fine art of measuring may not get along with their machine too well. Contrary to the popular marketing campaigns, you just can dump everything in, push “Start,” and walk away. It might work, and it might not. More than likely if it does, you just got lucky.  

The finished product. How well do the loaves turn out? Usually fairly well. The texture is usually pretty good, the crust is usually a healthy colour (providing you choose the right setting to your taste), and they bake up nice and high. While baking, you get the familiar bread in the oven smell, which attracts all kinds of attention within the house. Sometimes you can run into trouble, as on occasion I’ve had overly powerful yeast which pushes the dough to the top of the machine, or once I had a bread that looked like a nuclear explosion in miniature:  A domed collapse. When making bread by hand, I don’t seem to experience these problems. Especially the nuclear bread. The reasons are all in the mix, getting that mix right, and for someone inexperienced with bread making, I can imagine all kinds of frustration with trying to turn out a suitable loaf. There are rumours of many bread machines sitting on shelves in garages across North America. 

Final comments. Bread machines can be fun, providing you know what you’re doing, and they can turn out some great stuff. The recipe booklets that come with them are usually goldmines of great bread recipes. If you’re not into mechanical contraptions, then they probably aren’t for you. I wonder if a little more muscle power really in the long run is the answer, but then you have to be around more or less for the dough and the various stages. In the end, it’s a lifestyle choice:  If you like the machine you have and it does what you want, stick with it until it dies. Finding a new machine could be difficult in some areas, and Christmas is a good time to look for a new one, as the manufacturers and retail outlets bring out more variety at that time of year.