Breadmakers allow virtually anyone to bake bread with just minutes of effort and few skills beyond the ability to measure ingredients and push some buttons. What's more, they produce bread that is more than respectable in quality. And they allow you to control what goes into your bread, which might appeal to people with food allergies or gluten intolerance.
The electric breadmaker debuted 18 years ago. Sales peaked in 1998 and have dropped considerably since then. Salton, owner of the Breadman and Toastmaster brands, dominates the market. Breadmakers can be found everywhere from specialty kitchen shops to Wal-Mart. You can also find many models through online retailers such as Amazon.
Breadmakers typically take up a lot of room. Most are 12 to 13 inches high and 10 to 11 inches deep; they vary in width from 10 to 19 inches. Breadmakers typically yield loaves in one of three sizes: 1-pound, 1½-pound and 2-pound loaves.
Price range: $25 to $150.
Most of the machines have a rectangular bread pan, which produces a more customary-looking loaf than did the tall, squarish pan common in the past. Typically, you place the ingredients in the pan, insert the pan in the machine, close the cover, and push buttons to select the right cycle. A paddle fitted on a shaft in the pan's base mixes the ingredients and kneads the dough, stopping at programmed times to allow for rising before kneading again. An electric heating coil in the machine's base then bakes the bread. The time required for each step depends on the type of bread. Whole-wheat dough, for example, needs more time to rise and bake than white.
The typical breadmaker has cycles for basic white, whole-wheat, sweet, or fruit-and-nut bread, plus "dough" (to be used when you want to finish the dough by hand and bake it in the oven—for challah or other shaped breads, for example). Most models also have specialty cycles for, say, French bread and pizza dough. On their regular white-bread cycle, breadmakers can take as long as 3½ hours. Most have one or two rapid cycles, which increase heat during mixing to prepare loaves in as little as an hour. Recipes for rapid bread often call for more yeast than recipes for regular bread.
Convenience features let you bake without constantly having to hover. A delay-start timer, available on most models, lets you postpone when your bread is done—typically 13 hours from the time you press the button. A temperature-warning signal lets you know when the kitchen temperature isn't optimal for yeast growth. An add-in signal tells you when to add fruit, nuts, or other extras so they don't get chopped during kneading.
Crust control adjusts baking time so you get the crust color of your choice. A keep-warm/cool-down function keeps the bread from getting soggy for at least an hour if you aren't there to take it out right away. Power-outage protection ensures that the breadmaker will pick up where it left off after an outage. Some machines can withstand an hour-long outage; others can handle only a few seconds.
If you're looking for a breadmaker that will turn out very good white or raisin bread, opt for the least expensive model. The largest selection can be found at mass-merchandiser outlets, discount stores, and online. Don't base your decision on the availability or speed of a rapid cycle or you're likely to be disappointed in the results.
Should you need to replace a bread pan or dough blade after the warranty expires, it might make more sense to buy a new machine. We found that replacing those parts could cost up to 65 percent of the original purchase price.