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On Breadmakers

After baking breads in conventional ovens and even on a Coleman stove with an oven attachment at 9000 feet, I recently took the plunge and bought a breadmaker. I had put this off for a long time because I just couldn't get myself to believe that a counter top machine could mix, knead and bake a credible loaf of bread. This reticence was finally overcome after tasting some breads my friends made in their breadmakers and finding them surprisingly good.

I learned to make bread, pizza and cookies from watching my first generation Italian grandmother. She did everything by feel. She would start by putting a plastic cloth on the kitchen table; then she would lay down a large mound of flour in the center of the table and make a depression in the mound for the other ingredients. This was her mixing bowl. Her measuring cup and spoons were here hands and fingers. She would add the remaining ingredients to the mound. She would then do the mixing and kneading by hand - bringing additional flour into the "mix" until the right dough consistency was reached. It was all done by feel - a pinch of this, a hand full of that. I am still tempted by the allure of making doughs by this method but it's inexact and messy and takes a lot of experience. At the other end of the difficulty spectrum is making breads with a breadmaking machine. But to modify the immortal words spoken by Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry: "you've got to know your (breadmaker's) limitations."

Here are a few of my observations. I hope you find them worthwhile.

How to Use a Breadmaker

On the simple end of the spectrum, you can use a breadmaker to prepare breads using pre-packaged bread mixes. The cost of the mixes is about the same as buying a commercial loaf of bread with the advantage that you know the loaf is fresh and you made it yourself.

You can then advance to making various breads from scratch following the recipes that are included with every breadmaker. These recipes have been developed specifically for each breadmaker on the market and have been designed to insure that beginners won't have trouble making a good loaf of bread right from the start. You should begin with a simple recipe for white bread. I would then try a breadmaker recipe for wheat bread. This will give you some experience with using combinations of flour with differing protein content. Then try some of the more adventurous recipes which use moisture-containing ingredients such as eggs, raisins and bananas. As a contrast to the way my grandmother baked, measure your ingredients precisely. This is especially important in breadmaker baking. If the recipe calls for activatated dry yeast be sure it's fresh. I keep mine refrigerated. It's worth mentioning that in making bread you should use bread flour - not general purpose or pastry flour in your recipes unless the recipe specifically calls for an alternative. And remember that the more variations you try, the more you will learn about working with and around the unique characteristics of your breadmaker.

Next, you can try modifying recipes designed for conventional oven-baked breads. I should point out that each breadmaker behaves differently, and to insure success, non-breadmaker recipes may need to be modified for your particular machine. This takes some experience which is the reason I recommend starting your education with the recipes that come with the unit.

The key to success in modifying a conventional recipe is to know what properly-kneaded bread dough looks and feels like. Simply put - the dough should not be so wet that it adheres to the sides of the bread pan nor so dry that it breaks up when it is being kneaded. It should look smooth just like the Pillsbury Dough Boy. In practice you determine when the dough is "right" by observation; you just keep adding additional flour and/or water a bit at a time while the dough is being kneaded until the dough behaves correctly. It really helps if you have some experience with kneading breads by the old-fashioned hand method but it is not mandatory. Once you have adapted a recipe for your breadmaker you need only make occasional adjustments in the recipe to compensate for slight variations in the moisture content of your ingredients on the day you are baking your bread. With a bit of recipe adjustment you can even make great sourdough breads in your breadmaker using a live yeast sourdough starter! (See my article on Making Sourdough Starter Breads in a Breadmaker.)

Always evaluate your results as this will give you valuable information for correcting problems and making adjustments. Most breadmaker recipe books contain a troubleshooting page. It's really worth reading it.

Modern, microprocessor-controlled breadmakers mix and knead doughs better than most occasional bakers can do by hand. In fact you can use the breadmaker solely to prepare the dough and then do the baking in a conventional oven. This has the advantage of giving you more control over the crust, texture and shape of the loaf. The breadmaker can also be used for preparing doughs for biscotti, pizza, cookies, croissants and rolls which obviously can't be baked in a bread machine.

What Are Some Features in a Breadmaker That You Should Look For?

In a nutshell, knowing how you intend to use your breadmaker will give you a good idea of the features your breadmaker should have. The following are basic considerations:

Loaf shape
The preponderance of breadmakers on the market make a tall rectangular loaf with a top crust. If you are used to breads with the crust running on the long dimension of the loaf, you'll find these loaves somewhat peculiar. Recognizing this, a few manufacturers make units that can make a conventional-shaped loaf but you'll pay extra for the feature.
Loaf size
Most breadmakers have a 1-1/2 to 2 pound capacity. Avoid breadmakers that can only make a one-pound loaf. I personally feel that you get better consistency and more even temperature distribution with the larger capacity units even if you are making a small loaf. If you have a family, the larger capacity machine is a practical necessity.
Pre-Programmed Cycles
Most breadmakers come with a number of pre-programmed cycles. These should be adequate for most baking needs. A separate crust feature (which gives a few extra minutes of baking for a darker crust) is a simple feature that's nice to have.
Dough Cycle
This is a must if you want to finish the bread in your oven. The dough cycle will handle the mixing/kneading/punch down and first rise automatically for you.
User-Programmable Cycle
If you are a really serious baker, you will want the option of programming your own cycle. This feature is only available on a few of the higher priced machines and would not be cost-effective for most bakers.
Manual Stop/Cycle Extension
There are times when you might want to extend the mixing/kneading cycle because you are adding flour or water to get proper dough consistency. As a general rule, most of the inexpensive breadmakers don't have the option of stopping and restarting a pre-programmed cycle once it is started.
Add-Ingredients Signal
This is useful to let you know when to add nuts, etc. that you don't want mixed into the dough.
Delayed Start
Most modern breadmakers come with at least an 8 hours delayed-start feature. This is great if you want your bread to be finished when you get up or get back from work. I find it useful only for relatively simple breads that don't contain perishable ingredients. For instance if you are using eggs in your recipe, you shouldn't even consider using a delayed start.
Viewing Port
For me, this is a must. Without opening the cover, you can look in while the bread is being mixed and kneaded and when it is in the rising and baking portions of the cycle. This will give you some valuable information for your next loaf. Besides, I'm just curious but not so curious that I'd want to compromise the bread by opening the top while the bread is rising or baking.

Which Breadmaker Should you buy?

In the November 1997 issue of Consumer Reports twelve breadmakers were rated on the bases of bread quality, convenience and features (this is Consumer Reports latest rating to date). The upshot is that you would be hard pressed to go wrong with any of the models they reviewed. On the high end, many home bakers swear by the Panasonic, the Breadman or the Zojirushi. At the lower end many people have Wellbilt, Westbend and Pillsbury units since these have been extensively marketed in department stores and discount centers. The bottom line: almost any breadmaker you choose will make a credible loaf of bread. So the real issues revolve around features and cost.

My wish list? rectangular loaf, two pound capacity, user programmable cycle, dough cycle, manual stop/cycle time extension, independent crust setting, add ingredients signal, low temperature warning, viewing port, audible end of cycle indication and easy cleaning. In the interests of objectivity I'm not telling you which breadmaker I have but I can tell you that my current breadmaker doesn't have all the features I would like to have - now that I've gained some hands-on bread machine experience.

Good Baking!

©1999 Gary Fisher

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