It’s difficult to find a true loaf of whole-wheat bread. Most of what passes for it uses some manner of refined flour, and refined sugar activates the yeast. My daughter wisely has chosen a diet that proscribes those ingredients, so after too many frustrating supermarket-aisle hours, I have discovered the breadmaking machine.
Last time I looked, these gadgets turned out oddly cylindrical loaves with large dents at one end. But that was long ago, and everything has changed. Except the dents. Each of the three machines described below can turn out worthy bread; each is capable of much more. Most important: Each of them produced a terrific, for-real whole-wheat loaf. The only drawback is that you have to slice them yourself. The differences among the machines mostly lie in feature details.
Like all the machines I looked at, the Cuisinart CBK-100 ($100) offsets its boxiness with stainless steel; unlike the others, it had convenient handles on its sides. It makes up to a two-pound loaf, which is going to be taller than your toaster can handle, yet is irresistible to watch rising above the sides of the baking pan. (All of the machines sport viewing windows.)
As an entry-level breadmaker, I like that it has most of the features of the more expensive ones. Its worst quality is a hard-to-read LCD info screen, which may be more of a comment on my kitchen’s terrible lighting.
The recipe book gets you started with possibilities for nine of the machine’s 11 functions: white, whole wheat, French/Italian (for that extra crustiness), cake/quick bread, gluten-free, sweet, leavened or unleavened dough and jam. There’s also a setting for packaged mixes, and a bake-only selection to use for darkening a loaf or making meatloaf. A separate button selects program for using rapid-rise yeast in a recipe.
As with all breadmakers, your work is almost nonexistent. Put the ingredients, liquids first, in the loaf pan. Make a well on top of the flour and add your yeast. Select a course, select the size, choose from three stages of crust doneness, press Start. Your bread will be finished in three to four hours. There’s a delay-start feature that gives you up to 13 hours of waiting to bake your bread, which means that a fresh, hot loaf can await you in the morning—something we’ve done and which may be the best reason to have one of these gadgets. I customized one of the white-loaf recipes to accommodate cheddar cheese and jalapeno bits, a loaf that was gone within a day, as well as a loaf nicely flavored with olive oil and rosemary.
Breville’s The Custom Loaf ($250) has an all-stainless gleam unbroken by plastic except for a handle on top. The oversized info panel is controlled by a twist knob, like many car radios, with separate buttons for modifying or canceling a selection, or for delaying the start time of the process. Best of all, there’s a switch to activate both a light in the baking chamber and the control panel’s backlighting. Four sizes—from one to two-and-a-half pounds—are available, which will be reflected in the height of the loaf. The machine also offers a separate, plastic paddle for jam making.
The Breville also sports a fruit-and-nut dispenser that dumps any additives at the proper time. My first attempt at raisin bread resulted in a mass of stuck-together fruit at one end of the loaf; my daughter had the idea of buttering the raisins for the next try, which resulted in a perfect distribution. We went on to make a currants-and-sunflower whole-wheat loaf that was startlingly good.
The available courses include basic, wheat, gluten free, crispy loaf, sweet, yeast-free, pizza or pasta dough, jam, and bake-only. Each can be modified before you start it, and there’s a delay-start feature. The perennial problem of having a kneading paddle stuck in your loaf—or leaving its dramatic impression—is addressed with a collapsible paddle. Make sure it’s upright when you start, and it will drop to horizontal after all the kneading is done. You still get an impression of it in the bread, but it’s not as intrusive as what’s left by the other machines.
Zojirushi’s handsome Home Bakery Virtuoso (BB-PAC20, $325) puts two kneading paddles in a tray significantly longer than it is wide (and offers the option of purchasing two small side-by-side bread pans). The tray also sports a noncollapsing handle on each side, which rest nicely on a heatproof counter when you’re dislodging the loaf. Unlike the others, this has a clock you can set and which holds the time when the machine is unplugged. It thus can display the time at which your bread will be ready, which saves on some math if you’re shooting for a loaf to be ready when you waken.
The Zojirushi’s programmed courses are for basic and wheat in both regular and rapid-rise varieties, gluten-free, dough (but not pasta), cake, jam and sourdough starter. You can also program the machine to remember up to three custom-built courses. Every setting can be modified. An extra amount of time is added to the start of most of the courses to allow the ingredients to comes to room temperature, but this can be defeated. There’s also a lid heater to add color to the top of the loaf. The machine beeps to tell you when to add additives.
Its default is a two-pound loaf, with some recipes for pound-and-a-halfers also provided. This one turned out the best of the true whole-wheat loaves—don’t forget to have lots of vital wheat gluten on hand as well, and we used honey and molasses instead of sugar—probably owing to the dual paddles and the lengthy rest, knead, rise and bake process.
But each of these machines turned out excellent bread for us. Choosing one is a matter of deciding which extra features are worth paying for; in any case, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever be buying supermarket bread again. Make sure you also get a good bread knife.