Cuisinart CBK-200 2-Pound Convection Automatic Bread Maker
$129.95 list/$105.49 on Amazon
In six weeks of breadmaker testing, I made only two dud loaves, and they were both in the Cuisinart. I'm willing to chalk those up to user error—I may not have adequately secured the bread pan, which requires a lot of pressure before it clips into place. But those sad, burnt bricks still left me feeling uneasy. The remaining tests went fine, however, and the bread was pretty good—only falling short on the crust, which was a bit tough (extra disappointing, given that the Cuisinart's convection oven is supposed to produce a superior crust). The Cuisinart is also a little on the loud side, and the stainless-steel body tends to get hot. I did like, however, that the machine beeps at you when it's safe to remove the mixing blade. On other machines, the blade gets baked along with the loaf and often ends up lodged in the bottom of the crust. Here, you can whisk it out at the last moment for a pleasantly metal-free loaf.
Total: 24 (out of 40)
Zojirushi BBCC-X20 Home Bakery Supreme Breadmaker
$265 list/$193.49 on Amazon
The Zojirushi is the largest machine I tested, which makes it less convenient if you're short on kitchen space; but its size serves a purpose. It's the only breadmaker with a long, shallow bread pan shaped like a traditional loaf—the other machines have tall, narrow pans that produce more bucket-shaped breads—so you end up with a handsome product that could pass for store-bought. And the bread is good: soft but not too dense, with a toothsome crust. The Zojirushi also offers a programmable recipe memory, so you can experiment with your own homemade concoctions. The only major downside is the price: $200 seems excessive to me. But if money's no object, the Home Bakery Supreme should be your go-to breadmaker.
Total: 25 (out of 40)
Panasonic SD-YD250 Automatic Bread Maker with YeastPro™ Yeast Dispenser
$174.99 list/$129.99 on Amazon
The Panasonic inched out its competition in several areas. It reliably produced one of the best-looking loaves, with a dark, crispy crust and good flavor. It is the most compact machine I tried out, and the only one I could really imagine finding room for in my small kitchen. Panasonic users can choose from three loaf sizes, while the other machines allowed for only two. And the yeast-dispenser function is handy if not essential. (With the other machines, you have to be careful that the yeast doesn't come into contact with the water too soon; this involves digging a protective foxhole in the flour. With the Panasonic, the yeast pellets go into a glorified trapdoor in the lid, which automatically opens during the kneading.)
Two shortcomings, however, kept the Panasonic from being the perfect machine. The included recipes call for odd measurements—3 and 11/16 cups of flour? Really? And, worse, there's no window! The latter almost ruined the machine's standings in my book, but then I realized you can lift the lid for a peek now and then without any dire consequences. Besides, the whole point—for me, at least—is to be asleep when the bread is baking, and, thankfully, the Panasonic is as quiet as they come.
Total: 26 (out of 40)
Observant readers will notice that none of the machines received higher than a 7 for bread quality. This is because, frankly, even the best loaves I baked were only pretty good. Across the board, the crusts tended to be tough and stale-tasting, and none of the loaves were as light and airy as I had hoped. If, like me, you've been spoiled by artisanal bread with thin, shattering crusts and air pockets the size of a half-dollar—well, the bread machine is going to seem like a step down. I do think that what you get is better than the mass-produced loaves you'd buy at a supermarket—but not a lot better, and there is still some planning and effort involved. Which is why, after my six weeks of diligent carbo-loading, I'll now be looking into other enticements to pull me out of bed on frigid winter mornings. Does anyone know where I can buy a pair of battery-heated slippers in a men's size 12?