The onset of winter is accompanied by numerous hassles—nagging colds, miserable commutes, enormous puffy coats—but for me the worst part is just getting out of bed in the morning. When the temperature drops, my apartment's feeble radiators can't keep up, and pretty soon my early-a.m. routine starts to feel like a new leg of the Shackleton expedition. Which is why, this winter, I decided I needed to do something drastic. I decided I needed to buy a bread machine.
Hear me out: What could be more enticing on a chilly winter's morn than the smell of freshly baked bread wafting through the apartment? Or to begin each day with a thick pat of butter slowly melting across a still-steaming slice of your latest homemade (sort of) loaf?
Achieving this fantasy through traditional methods is pretty much impossible. At best, one could make the dough in advance, refrigerate it, and pop it in the oven upon waking—an imperfect solution that would require forethought and baking skills (two things I sadly lack). That's where the automatic breadmaker comes in. This nifty invention demands little more of the would-be baker than the ability to measure ingredients and about 10 minutes of time. The machine does the rest: mixing, kneading, proofing, and baking the dough—all in just three or four hours. With the timer function that comes standard in today's breadmakers, you can load the ingredients before bed and schedule the baking to end just as your alarm is going off the next morning.
The perfect antidote to the winter doldrums? Perhaps. But I had some concerns. Could bread baked in a machine the size of a large microwave actually taste good? And would the process really be as simple and painless as advertised? I decided to dust off my measuring cups and find out.
I tested five of the most popular breadmakers on the market, baking more than two dozen loaves over the course of six weeks. All of the machines relied on the same basic process: The user dumps the ingredients into a loaf-shaped pan, then lowers the pan into the machine and clips or twists it firmly into place. A small metal mixing blade at the bottom of the pan whirs around to do the kneading, and then the machine lets the dough rise and, finally, bakes it. I evaluated the machines in four categories:
Quality (10 points)
How's the bread? For this experiment, I focused on making a classic white loaf, ideal for sandwiches and toast. (I also made several fruit-and-nut loaves and quickly determined that, if the machine makes a good basic loaf, it will handle fancier varieties with ease.) Specifically, I was looking for a shapely loaf with good color; a crisp, crackling crust; and a light, airy crumb.
Convenience (10 points)
Is the machine easy to use? Are the instructions helpful and complete? Is it noisy? Does it take up a lot of kitchen countertop and/or storage space?
Features (10 points)
All of the breadmakers I tested share a few standard features, like the aforementioned timer function, an optional "rapid-bake" cycle, and a nonstick bread pan. But a few of the machines boasted extras that, if useful, earned them additional points. Also worth bonus points: a big window. I never got tired of watching the mixing blade twist and toss the dough while I mooned around the kitchen with the crossword.
Value (10 points)
How much does it cost? Does the machine seem durable? In the case of the more expensive machines, is the bread tasty enough to justify the added cost?
The results, from disappointing to delectable:
Sunbeam 5891-33 2lb Breadmaker
$54.88 on Amazon
The Sunbeam was the cheapest model I could find, and I got what I paid for. While it produced a decent-looking loaf, the bread was dense and spongy inside, with a texture similar to a muffin—a terrible fit for sandwiches and only so-so as toast. Which is too bad, because otherwise I liked this model: It's quiet, it doesn't take up much counter space, and it has a nice big window for watching the action. I even enjoyed the repetitive, overly simplistic instructions. ("The most important secret of making bread: 'Exact measurements.' That's the key to successfully baking bread: 'Exact measurements.' ") But the bread's just not good enough to make the Sunbeam worth buying.
Total: 20 (out of 40)
Breadman TR875 2-Pound Breadmaker
$129.99 list/$96.99 on Amazon
I feel a little bad placing the Breadman second to last, because it actually makes pretty good bread, man. It produced one of the airier loaves of the bunch, losing points only because the crust always came out too light and soft (even on the dark-crust setting). But the real problem here is noise: This is the loudest machine by far. For my first test, I set it to bake a loaf overnight, but instead of waking at sunrise to the smell of fresh bread, I was jolted out of sleep at 4 a.m. to a violent rattling and churning in the kitchen. I thought something was wrong: Nope, that's just how the Breadman operates. For small-apartment dwellers like me, this is a deal breaker. But if you live in a place large enough that the kitchen racket won't disturb your sleep, the Breadman will deliver decent loaves for a reasonable price.
Total: 22 (out of 40)