Bread Maker Buying Advice

Do you love the smell of freshly baked bread, but don't have the time to measure, knead, rise and roll? The invention of the bread maker has made it possible for even those with limited amount of kitchen time to whip up a fresh loaf for dinner with the flick of a switch. With so many models and features to choose from, how will you know which one is right for you? Knowing what features to look for can help you make the best decision and spend your dough wisely.

Loaf Size
Loaf size is generally measured based on the loaf weight the bread maker produces. Loaf sizes usually come in three weight options: 1lb, 1 ½ lbs or 2 lbs. Which size is right for you? Most people tend to make loaves just large enough to suit their needs.

One of the greatest appeals of a bread maker is always having fresh bread on hand versus bread that goes uneaten and stale. One-pound loaves are best for singles and couples who consume quickly, whereas a 1 ½ lb loaf or 2 lb loaf is better for families or entertaining. Basic and budget-priced bread machines generally offer a single loaf size, so choose carefully. Higher-end units usually offer bakers at least two, if not three, loaf sizes, which saves on time if you'd rather bake one large loaf than two smaller ones. But if you'll only bake larger quantities occasionally, a 1 lb model will likely fit your needs and cost you less money. Using the quick-bake setting on a larger-capacity machine turns out denser bread, which may not be to your liking. Finally, they won't offer you a variety of loaf shapes, but you can choose whether you want to bake your loaves vertically or horizontally; the difference is purely visual preference and has no effect on taste.

Not Just for Bread Anymore
Despite the name, some bread makers are capable of turning out products other than traditional loaves of white and wheat. If you aren't baking more because you are short on time, consider one of these higher-end models. Cooks who like to get the most out of their gadgets and appliances should look at machines like Zojirushi's Home Bakery Supreme Bread Machine, which, in addition to handling bread and other wheat- and flour-based products (pizza or pasta dough for example), can turn out quick breads, croissants and even meatloaf.

Cycles and Programming
You'll also want to consider programming cycles before you choose your bread maker. Although the types of cycles vary from model to model, most machines come with at least a few options, including a pre-programmable cycle, a user-programmable cycle, a dough cycle and even a manual stop or cycle extension. The pre-programmable cycle is the most common and is found on every model. Where they vary greatest is in how many pre-programmable cycles (anywhere from 2 to 12) they have and what type of product each of those cycles can produce (white, wheat or even sourdough cycles, which prevent the baker from interrupting the starter process-the list goes on). The cycles themselves may be as limited as bread or crust type, or as inclusive as specialty functions for quick breads, cake batters and gluten-free or low-carbohydrate breads.

User-programmable cycles allow the baker to program actual recipe specifications and are typically available only on high-end models. The same is generally true for dough cycles, which do all the prep work for you and stop short of the actual baking. A manual stop, or cycle extension, is a handy option that may alert you to remove the kneading paddle or add extra ingredients like fruit, nuts, seeds or grains.

What you'll need depends on how flexible you want your bread machine to be and how much customization your recipes need. A good rule to follow if you are buying your first bread machine is to get a few more functions than you think you need. You won't feel deprived as your skills grow, but you'll eliminate the risk of buying too much machine for your actual needs.

User Friendliness
Bread makers with pre-set programs make baking bread as easy as flipping a single switch. The more complex the machine, the more features the baker can play with, but this can also be confusing to the less-experienced user.

Keep an eye out for include removable paddles and parts for easy cleaning. If countertop and cabinet space is at a premium, the size and shape of the machine is also an important consideration. Lastly, don't forget about the finished product: if what your bread looks like is important to you, you may want to stick with models that operate with one paddle rather than two. Two paddles may leave two holes in the bread bottom, even though two paddles may do a more efficient job of preparing the dough.

Additional Features
Many machines boast additional features, and these differ greatly depending on the brand and price point you choose. Look for delayed start time, which functions like programmable coffee makers: add your ingredients and select the start time so that the machine delivers hot, fresh bread when you want it. Audible timers that signal when to add-ingredients or when your loaf is finished make baking even easier if you're distracted by other tasks.

We also suggest looking at a model that comes with its own recipe book. While dozens of bread machine cookbooks and recipe sites are available, recipes provided by manufacturers may offer better results with their own machines and will help new users get comfortable with baking bread the programmable way. And, of course, you want to be familiar with the warranty and repair policies.

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