Using a bread machine is simple – you just add the ingredients to the bread pan, close the lid, choose your program and press the 'Start' button. Without any more effort from you, it will automatically mix, knead, prove and bake the bread.
What to Look for in a Bread Machine
A bread machine is best left on the kitchen worktop, ready for use at any time (mine is used at least once most days). So consider the space you have available and the shape and style that will best fit into your kitchen.
Bread machines are available in many shapes and sizes – in white, black or stainless steel – and with a variety of features. Though they all work in the same way, inevitably some are better than others. Of course, it's worth remembering that you are unlikely to be in a position where you can compare the results of one machine with another, so as long as YOUR machine produces bread that you and your family enjoy, that's all that matters.
A bread machine is basically an insulated box with a hinged lid. The main body contains the working parts, including the motor, the heating elements and the control panel. Inside, a removable non-stick bread pan (with a handle) locks into position. In the pan is a non-stick kneading blade that fits on to a rotating mounting shaft. Some larger models have two kneading blades, each fitted to its own mounting shaft.
The shape and size of the bread pan dictates the shape and size of the bread. When buying your first machine, it may be tempting to buy a small model but remember that small ones are unlikely to be able to make large loaves while larger machines can usually make small loaves. The most versatile machines are those that will make three sizes – small, medium and large.
The lid usually has an air vent to allow steam to escape. Sometimes a window is fitted in it, enabling you to view the bread as it cooks. In my experience, machines with a large window tend to produce bread with a slightly softer and paler top crust than those with a small or no window.
At the time this book is going to press, I have found that machines with the longer programs are the ones that consistently produce the best bread. Longer programs give the yeast plenty of time to do its work and make the bread rise.
An added bonus is that the slower the bread rises, generally the better is its flavour. The best machines have programs that take 3-4 hours for white bread, 4-5 hours for wholewheat bread, 2-21⁄2 hours for white dough and about 3 hours for wholewheat dough. Though these may seem long, remember, the bread machine is doing all the work while you get on with other things (just like a washing machine cleaning your clothes – imagine how much time and effort you would need to do it by hand). Bread machines with shorter programs can be good too – they usually require the addition of lukewarm liquids in order to speed up the rising process.
Most bread machines are supplied with a measuring cup and measuring spoons.
When choosing a bread machine for the first time, look for a well-written instruction book with enough basic, and not-sobasic, recipes to get you started. The best machines have a good back-up service too, in case you need help and advice.
Good bread machines incorporate built-in safety devices that allow for a short break in power supply (if the machine is accidentally switched off or in the event of a brief power cut) as well as an automatic cut-out to stop the machine if the kneading blade is prevented from turning (by dough that is too dry and heavy for example).
These are usually on a touch control panel on the top of the bread machine. Like controls on all new electrical appliances, they may take a short while to get used to, but you will soon find your way around them and become familiar with the correct symbols for the programs you want to use.
When you are setting the machine to work, this displays the program you choose together with extras such as the loaf size and crust colour. Once the machine starts, the window displays the time remaining until the operation is complete and, sometimes, extra information such as the stage the program has reached (resting, kneading, rising, baking).
This function is for starting or stopping the machine once the ingredients have been added to the bread pan, the program has been selected and the timer (if using) has been set. When the bread machine is in operation an indicator light glows or flashes.
These control the programs by choosing the type of bread or dough you are making, the size of loaf, crust colour and so on. Some have separate buttons for each function; others have one button that can be used to select a numbered program.
Press this to choose the size loaf you wish to bake or (sometimes) the amount of dough you want to make. The choice varies with the model but, usually, the sizes are small, medium and large (450g/1 lb, 675g/11⁄2 lb and 900g/2 lb) and refer to the size of the cooked loaf.
Most bread machines are set to cook a crust of 'medium' colour, unless you use this button to choose a lighter or darker crust. Ingredients such as sugar, eggs and cheese can cause the crust to darken quickly. If this happens the first time you make a recipe, this button allows you to adjust the colour next time. Similarly, if a loaf is too pale the first time you cook it, set the crust colour to a darker shade next time.
This is used to delay the cycle so that the bread machine switches on automatically and makes the bread in time to coincide with, perhaps, breakfast or your return home from work. The timer should not be used for recipes that include perishable ingredients, such as milk, yogurt, soft cheese, eggs, meat or fish.
The choice of programs differs slightly from manufacturer to manufacturer and model to model. Each will have been thoroughly tested using the manufacturer's own recipes, with kneading, rising and baking times to suit the sort of flour being used and the type of bread or dough required. When buying a bread machine, it's worth checking the programs and features and asking yourself which will be most useful to you. Here is a brief guide.
These programs take the ingredients automatically through the normal bread-making process of mixing, kneading (pummelling and stretching), rising, knocking back (punching out the bubbles), kneading, rising and baking.
- Basic White or Normal – the best program for loaves made with strong white, brown and soft grain flours.
- Wholewheat – the best program for loaves made with strong wholemeal flour.
- Rapid – shorter, and therefore faster, these programs are usually available for white or wholewheat loaves. Loaves made on these programs are likely to be smaller (and have a closer texture) than those cooked on full programs. Their keeping qualities are likely to be less too. In other words, these programs are fine if you need a fresh loaf in about one hour and plan to use it immediately.
- Sandwich – for loaves with a softer crust and a fairly close texture, that are ideal for slicing to make sandwiches.
These programs automatically mix the ingredients, knead (pummel and stretch) the dough and allow it to rise in ideal conditions. Then it is removed from the bread machine, knocked back (has the gas bubbles punched out of it) and kneaded briefly (worked by pressing and stretching) before being shaped by hand, allowed to prove (rise for a second time) and then baked conventionally in a hot oven.
- White – for making dough with white, brown and soft grain flours.
- Wholewheat – for making dough with wholemeal flour.
- Pizza – a shorter program for making dough that is ideal for making flatbreads such as pizza bases, pitta bread and focaccia.
- Add extra ingredient 'beep' or raisin 'beep' – a really useful feature that lets you know the right time in the cycle to add extra ingredients such as nuts and dried fruit.
- Raisin/Nut dispenser – automatically adds small amounts of additional ingredients to the dough at the correct stage during the cycle. This is fine for dry foods (such as nuts and seeds) but ingredients that are likely to stick in the dispenser (chopped raw or dried fruits, grated cheese and chocolate) need to be added by hand.
- Keep-warm facility – keeps the bread warm for up to an hour after it is baked.
- Power alert – tells you that there has been a break in the power supply.
- Expert mode – allows you to program each stage in the procedure to suit your individual requirements. Extended bake or extra bake facility – enables you to add extra baking time to the basic programs.
- Cake or bake program – for baking only (some models mix and bake); useful for cakes and tea breads.
- French program – a longer program that makes a loaf with a crust that is crisp and a texture that is open. Italian program – for Italian-style loaves that often contain oil as an ingredient.
- Gluten-free program – specifically designed to mix, rise and bake gluten-free bread mixes.
- Fan-assisted baking – sometimes built in to bread machines that have a large viewing window.
- Jam program – for making small amounts of jam.
- Bagel/roll rack – a stand or rack that is specially designed to hold bagels or rolls in the bread machine during baking.