Thursday, February 4, 2010

Attack of the Bread-Baking Robots

Creative Commons - some rights reserved
Friend called the other day. Wants a bread machine. (Good move.) Asked my advice. After talking for like 10 straight minutes, I realized I know a hell of a lot about bread machines. Here’s the lowdown:

What’s a bread machine?
It’s this, for sure. But the one we’re talking about was made possible by clever processors and micro Japanese. (Strike that. Reverse it.) It’s a uniquely 20th century home appliance that automatically mixes, kneads, proofs and bakes one loaf of bread. The baker needs merely to measure ingredients, press a few buttons and walk away. The machine does the rest.

How long have they been around?
An enterprising team of Japanese inventors created the bread machine in the mid-80s. It made its U.S. debut in the 90s. I’ve worn out three since then. Our first was a glass-domed Welbilt. The kids affectionately dubbed it “R2D2.”

How do they work?
Simplicity in operation is made possible by an amazingly complex marriage of electronics and electro-mechanical whatzits and gizmoes. Think about it – the machine has to:
  • Mix water, flour, yeast and other stuff
  • Knead the resulting dough for a prescribed length of time
  • Proof the dough, letting it rise at optimum temperature
  • Punch it down (the second knead)
  • Let it rise again
  • Bake
  • Cool
That's a lot to ask of one device. The fact that they work at all is a small miracle. The fact that they work so well and are not that difficult to buy is even more amazing.

What else do they do?
Well it doesn’t do windows, if that’s what you were thinking. But some machines claim to be able to make jam, bread sticks, yogurt, host a late-night talk show on NBC and who-knows-what-else. I think this is a stretch and can’t imagine they’d do any of that very well. That said, there are a few bells and whistles that do work and are worth looking into. More below in the buyer’s guide.

My bread machine adventure

I was hooked from day one. Remember DAK? R2D2 came from Drew Kaplan’s Sharper-Imagesque catalog for electronics nerds. And, in typical Kaplan style, it worked as well as his inimitable copy described.

R2D2’s generation of bread machines shared a cool-factor asset that was also a liability: the big glass dome top. It was hugely popular with kids and company: you got to watch the machine putting the bread going through its paces. But a lot of heat was lost through the glass, so we quickly learned to put aluminum foil over the dome during the baking cycle. Otherwise you’d end up with an insipidly white crust at the top of the loaf. That’s why today’s bread machines have no window at all – or just a small porthole that doesn’t let out much heat.

The first generation machines also had basic features, namely a timer and crust control. You could dial in the darkness of the crust and set the machine to bake some number of hours in the future. They've gotten more sophisticated since then.

How to buy one

What the old machines lacked was loaf size control, “extras” dispensing and a way to deal with power failure. Of the three, the last is the feature I won’t do without when shopping for bread machines.

Because the cycle is so long – three to six hours, depending on what you’re making – if the machine loses its program during that time due to a power failure, your dough may not make it to bread, or worse – your bread might end up half-baked. And the world is half-baked enough without that.

So the newer machines can hold onto their program during a (brief) power failure.

And if you like stuff in your bread, like whole seeds, nuts, raisins, etc., the older machines didn’t really have a way to handle it. If you put these adjuncts in with the flour, water and yeast – it gets ground up into the dough. So you end up with raisin bread with no raisins, essentially.

R2D2 used to beep when it was time to add stuff. But you had to be there to hear the beep and add the stuff, which was not always convenient.

Some newer machines have a dispensing system, not unlike the soap dispenser in your dishwasher. You load it with whatever’s going in your bread and a trap door springs open at the right time to drop them into the dough. Pretty nifty. And worth looking for.

Newer machines also come with programmed settings for various size loaves which makes them more versatile, to a point. Each bread machine has its own butter zone for loaf size – and won’t be happy going far under or over the optimum. In fact, it's a bit of a mess and a hassle when your bread outgrows the machine. Don't ask me how I know that.

So, how do you go about buying one? Like most things in life, it’s all about budget. The Cadillac is the Zojirushi – expensive, durable and in tests they seem to make the best bread. However – they have no trap door for nuts and raisins so that’s a consideration if you like your bread with stuff in it.

You can get a really nice machine for about $100. I am partial to the Breadman since it makes good bread, has power failure backup and a trap door for stuff. Only complaint: the non-stick coating on the pan isn’t so tough and the pan may need replaced before the machine wears out but that’s not too big of a deal.

After that, they run the gamut, all the way to under $20 at the thrift shop. And that’s not a bad place to start. If you’re not squeamish about used kitchen equipment, the bread machine is one of those devices that is often given as a gift to the person with everything. Sometimes, Mr. Everything uses it once and just doesn’t get into it. And his $150 machine ends up at the thrift shop, where you can pick one up for a lot less – ahem – bread.

Here’s the thing: it’s a bit of a gamble. The machine could have been cast off because it’s broken. My advice for thrift shop expeditions:
  • Pick from the clean ones.
  • Pay as little as you can
  • Check that it has all its parts: pan and mixing blade that fit.
And ask if you can plug in the machine and turn it on. You should see the blade spinning and feel a little bit of heat coming from the heating element. That’s a fairly good indicator that the machine will work – but unfortunately the only way to tell for sure is to make bread in it. That’s why you have to go with the cheapest machines to minimize your risk.

One more caveat – the best bread is made with the best flour. I use King Arthur exclusively. Mass market brands just can’t hold a candle to KA – but I’ve never tried Lily White and my southern friends tell me it’s excellent. Other organic and small-mill flours like Bob's will perform well, too.

Even though we’ve been bread-machine baking for nearly 20 years – the family still gets excited to walk into a house filled with the aroma of freshly baked bread. Yours will, too. Have fun.