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)
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?