Making bread by hand is hard, are breadmakers better?

Making bread by hand is hard, are breadmakers better?

There’s no finer pleasure than starting the day with a slice of hot, fresh bread dripping in salted butter. Poets have waxed on about the joys of transforming so few ingredients into such a beautiful foodstuff for millennia. But unless life has been very good to you, it’s probably not often you wake up to freshly-made bread wafting from your kitchen. Are breadmakers the answer to this, the most first-world of first-world problems? And are they able to match or outdo the stuff I can make by hand?

It was only when we bought our home that I decided that making bread was a skill I had to learn lest I not feel like a Proper Adult. I scoured YouTube for a tutorial and stumbled across this clip by star baker Richard Bertinet. I’ve written before about how comforting and relaxing this video is, and it’s a balm for the soul when you’re having a rough day. Bertinet made this look so easy that anyone could achieve similarly beautiful results. Alas, I could not.

Mercifully, this was in the heyday of Twitter when celebrities were all around and happy to talk to fans. So, I asked Bertinet himself and got the necessary advice to remedy my woes — I wasn’t kneading the dough confidently, or for as long enough as I needed to make it work. After that, I was churning out some pretty gorgeous bread on a regular basis and my kids love eating my fougasse.

The recipe itself is so simple: 500 grams of strong bread flour, 10 grams of salt, 10 grams of yeast and 350 grams of water. That’s not an error: You stick a measuring jug on a weighing scale and weigh the water for a more accurate measurement. Once mixed, you have to get the dough onto the table and work it. The mix is sticky. Don’t add flour. Trust the process.

That means moving the dough, stretching it and folding air into it quickly and aggressively, really working it rather than just kneading it. If you let your hands hold on for too long, your fingers will sink into the mix and then it’s game over trying to get them out. Resist the urge to add more flour to reduce the wetness and instead just focus on keeping it moving until it finally forms. When it does, you’ll be staring at the most beautiful dough you will ever see.

Once you’ve left it to rise and subsequently knocked it down, you’ll be able to throw it into the oven. Toss in some water to add some steam and you’ll get a beautifully crusty, tasty loaf

There are benefits to breadmakers, including the fact you can have fresh bread made at home and that you can set when the process begins. Toss your ingredients in before you go to bed, set a delay and you’ll wake up with the smell of bread wafting through your home. I’ve been setting my tests to finish at 7am, so by the time we’ve all been dragged by our noses downstairs, it’s ready to go.

Unfortunately, in my experience that’s where the upsides to breadmakers stop and the downsides begin. You will never get the same quality of bread from a machine that you will get mixing the dough by hand.

The machines have small paddles that wheel around at the base of the mixing bowl. That action can’t mix hard enough to stretch the protein in the flour that promotes the formation of gluten. And it can’t add the same volume of air into the mix to help create a good rise and a fluffy texture inside. Normal bread recipes don’t work as well since you’ll need to add extras into the mix to improve the flavor (more on this later) and malleability, like milk, sugar and vegetable oil.

That little paddle will then lodge itself in the base of your loaf while it bakes, so you’ll need to fish it out every morning. The void in the middle of your bread that’s left behind is big enough to ensure that you won’t be able to slice too much of the loaf for toast or sandwiches.

The second big downside, and the one that’s more heartbreaking, is the smell that wafts upstairs each morning isn’t that great. Even on the lightest setting the bread comes out overdone compared to the real thing. No matter what recipe I tried, the smells are overwhelmingly yeasty and sour, which makes me less enthused about the morning feast. What emerges has the physical and mechanical properties of bread but very little actual flavor. Slather it in cold, salted butter all you want but, fundamentally, it just doesn’t hit as good as the most mediocre of store-bought breads.

That’s just my opinion, of course, and some folks have justifiable reasons for opting for “mid” bread over no homemade bread at all. But if you must buy a machine to do your breadmaking for you, here are two of the better options on the market.

Photo by Daniel Cooper / Engadget

Much as I’m down on breadmakers, there are reasons why I’m quite fond of the Gastroback Automatic Bread Maker Pro. I’m a sucker for an easy user interface and a viewing window, the latter of which will let you keep an eye on how your mix is coming along. Admittedly, no bread maker has an “easy” UI, but this one is tolerable, with each function set with its own dedicated button. The only annoyance is cycling through the program button, and since there are 19 options, you’d better make sure you’re doing it right.

After that, you just have to set the three color options (light, medium or dark) and the weight of the dough you’re creating (500g, 750g or 1,000g). It’ll tell you how long it’ll take for your loaf to be baked, and you can add on a delay for however long you need. As for options, the Gastroback will make various breads, mix doughs together for you and will even defrost meals in its pan. I wasn’t brave enough to try the stir fry settings, mind you, where you’re promised to mix and bake dry ingredients like peanuts and soybeans.

But the bread it produces is what I’ll describe as “generic breadmaker bread,” which is to say it’s warm and it’s there. No matter what recipes I tried, the results were never that great.

Image of a Tefal bread maker on a tabletop.

Photo by Daniel Cooper / Engadget

T-Fal looked to set its bread maker apart from its competitors by giving it the ability to do plenty more jobs in your home. You’ll get all the standard stuff like making breads, cakes and mixing doughs for bread, pizza and pasta. But, in the style of all shopping channel adverts, you’ll also be able to use this to make porridge, cook cereals and prepare homemade jelly. Oh, and if you’ve got pasteurized cow’s milk you can use a bundled accessory to churn yogurt and soft cheese.

The user interface is pretty much the same as the Gastroback, albeit with some chunkier, better looking buttons. But where it falls down is in the lack of a viewing window, which means you’ll only be able to see how your loaf has developed by lifting the lid. Which, I should add, you can’t do while the bread is baking, so you’ll never know if a problem is developing until it’s done. And the bread it produces is just lackluster, to the point where my kids — who signed up as willing testers at the start of this process — quickly lost interest. Fundamentally, I’m not sure the Tefal is compelling enough to warrant you buying it unless you’re really tolerant of weak bread.

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