Bread machines knead a second look

(My column in this evening’s Tribune. And for the record, I did not provide the headline.)

Like the Dallas Cowboys and liquid nacho cheese, there exists no middle ground with bread machines.

Partisans whip them out every day to restock the breadbox with earnest cheer (“What about rosemary bread today?”); others relegate them to a dark corner of the basement where they wait, forgotten and forlorn, with only the distant freedom of a garage sale to look forward to.

But after a number of attempts at handmade bread – which invariably produced flavorful loaves with the heft and charm of rough-hewn granite – I embarked upon a bread machine rescue project. I found one online for $50 and eagerly snatched it up. It was the perfect candidate for an early parole, never having been so much as opened, let alone used to actually make bread. It was a formidable device, this Emerilware Bread Maker by T-Fal. The coffee maker could only look on in envy at the new arrival, heavy and sleek on the kitchen counter.

Being a fan of bread with substantive nutritional value, I jumped right in with a 2-pound, whole-wheat loaf. “Let’s see what you can do,” I challenged while dropping the six ingredients one after the other into the bread maker: water, evaporated milk, salt, sugar, flour, yeast. Three button-clicks later, and the machine jumped to life, mixing, kneading and, ultimately, baking the bread.

The automatic bread maker itself is a relative newcomer to the home kitchen. The first was pioneered by Hitachi and sold in Japan in 1986. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that they caught on in the United States, selling tens of millions during a roughly five-year run of prominence that ended in the early 2000s. Today, bread machines are present in roughly 25 percent of American homes, but they seem to have largely fallen out of use and, I’ve observed, rarely show up on wedding registries these days.

In another inauspicious sign that the bread machine craze has passed, six of the nine e-mail addresses listed on the Bread Machine Industry Association “contact us” Web site bounced back, including the go-to e-mail for the association itself. Things might not be looking good for the industry, but that still leaves tens of millions of bread machines in American homes, many no doubt going unused.

That’s a shame because these neglected contraptions make homemade bread far easier than it was for our ancestors who lacked bread machines.

“Self-sufficient rural Missourians made their own breads for the same reasons they butchered their meat, raised their chickens, milked cows, made homemade butter and cheese,” Carol Fisher told me recently. She is the coauthor of “Pot Roast, Politics and Ants in the Pantry” (University of Missouri Press, 2008) which tells the history of Missouri’s food through our state’s many cookbooks. Baking bread was simply a matter of survival.

“I grew up on a small farm until I was 11,” Fisher explained. “Our family made biscuits every day. Mom made homemade bread – five or six loaves at a time – a couple of times a week. We had a large family.”

Sure, I was taking the easy way. But back on my kitchen counter, my machine’s inaugural loaf was tasty, if disappointingly concave. My second trial run, with a new jar of yeast and a pinch more sugar for yeast to feed on, turned out a perfect loaf of sandwich bread. Easy – almost too easy.

I did a little math to find if using that bread machine could prove a money-saving venture as well. Five-pound sacks of flour run about $3.00 at the grocery store. Assuming each sack will make you three loaves of sandwich bread, you’re looking at total costs – including other ingredients – of well under two dollars per loaf with the bread machine versus $2.50 or so for Wonder Bread. And I’ll recoup my up-front expenses for the bread machine itself in about sixty loaves, further sweetening the deal.

But maybe “sweetening” is the wrong word. The reason conventional bread melts on your tongue is chemistry; the sugars in the bread are melting away in a process not unlike cotton candy dissolving in your mouth as a kid. Modern, store-bought bread is loaded with either sugar or high-fructose corn syrup, whatever was trading at the lowest price the day the ingredients of the bread were being purchased. One or the other – sugar or HFCS – shows up second or third on the list of ingredients of most of our bread these days. The remaining ingredients are a medicine cabinet of unpronounceable chemicals and additives, which keep the bread from going stale but result in a bland, virtually nutrition-free bread.

Nobody’s saying you need to bake your daily bread on a, well, daily basis. But rescuing a neighbor’s bread machine from basement limbo can save money and keep your family in good, healthy bread. And even if you only break even on the costs, the smells of baking bread will be worth the price of admission alone.


Scott Rowson works in communications at the University of Missouri, lives and eats in Columbia and writes about it at ShowMeEats.com Reach him at ShowMeEats@gmail.com.

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6 Responses to “Bread machines knead a second look”

  1. jeff Says:

    I look at that little coil in the bread machine (I, too, have one in the garage) and then at the nice 500 degree oven with a hot stone, and the oven wins out. No contest. I can make nice breads in the oven. In the machine, undercooked cardboard.

  2. k Says:

    I have to agree with Jeff. I freecycled both of my bread machines some time back. Now, I do (IMHO) a better job with either my KitchenAid’s bread hook or my 14-cup Cuisinart FP with metal blade. Very fast, still easy, and yummy. I do have fewer collapsed loaves when I make them myself.

    And for very very fast bread, with or without mechanical assistance, check out Mark Bittman’s Minimalist recipe for “60-minute bread.”

  3. Scott Says:

    I think what you’re aiming for matters. I’m just looking to replace lame, additive-laced sandwich bread from the store without much work on my part. My bread machine does that. What it would not do is threaten Uprise Bakery or create much of a depth of flavor.

    A surprising number of people use the machines to mix and knead the bread, then take it out and bake in the oven. So many that that may be the way most people are using them nowadays.

    At the same time I would not be surprised if my bread machine gets close to 500 degrees. What is it if not a souped-up toaster oven, which gets darn close. I’ll have to test it. Again, it’s not going to replicate a stone oven, but it gets the job done for sandwich bread.

  4. Stevi Says:

    How are you making your bread. When I make homemade bread, whether in the machine or the oven, it’s definitely not suitable for sandwiches. It pretty much just falls apart when cut. Great with soups or just by itself, but would not hold up for sandwich making. I’ve tried various recipes, even the pre-mixed boxed stuff specifically for bread machines. I must be missing something.

  5. Scott Says:

    Stevi, it sounds like the bread may be drying out. Have you tried backing off the baking time 10 minutes our so? That’d be my first suggestion. Any other bakers want to weigh in? Could Stevi be running into a low gluten problem here?

  6. kristin Says:

    We got a bread machine as a gift during the big craze years ago. We used it for a while, but, like Alton Brown, I simply don’t have room in my kitchen for anything that isn’t a multi-tasker. Bread machines take up a ton of countertop real estate and don’t make particularly amazing bread.

    I agree with Scott that using a bread machine is superior to buying a loaf of Wonder Bread on many, many levels. But, I think I’ll stick with my Kitchen Aid Mixer and bake the loaves myself. It’s not that hard. Really.

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