Bread machines are a convenient addition to your kitchen
If you like the smell, taste and texture of homemade bread but don't want to spend hours preparing it, a bread machine is a worthwhile investment. This is one machine that does all the work for you: mixing, kneading, proofing and baking -- which is why it's one of the most popular appliances for the home cook. People love being able to make fresh bread without worrying about additives or other fillers that they may not want to ingest. Others like the idea of an artisan loaf without paying artisan bread prices. As an added benefit, some machines can make a range of items beyond white and wheat loaves, such as cakes, jam, baguettes, or even meatloaf or lasagna.
Even with a bread machine, making perfect bread can require some tinkering, especially at the beginning. Some bakers like to monitor the process, adding water if the dough gets too dry or smoothing the loaf before baking to help create a pleasing loaf shape. Many serious bakers buy bread machines only for kneading dough, which saves them time and effort. Once it's kneaded, they remove the dough for shaping, proofing and baking.
However, making bread doesn't have to be that complex. Plenty of bread-lovers just toss in the ingredients, walk away, and are perfectly happy with their results. Many don't even bother with individual ingredients, they just buy mixes. The general consensus seems to be that even a basic bread made in a bread machine is far superior to a supermarket loaf. Most users agree: once you overcome the learning curve, which varies from machine to machine, baking bread in a bread maker becomes second nature.
Most bread machines that cost less than $100 offer several cycles that correspond to different varieties of bread, including white, whole wheat, French or Italian; and many will have a setting for cakes as well as a quick-bake cycle. Many bread makers offer you the option of making bread loaves of different sizes. As you move up in price, bread machines begin to include specialty cycles such as jam, bake only, gluten-free, low-carb and sourdough starter. They also have convenience features that you may or may not consider essential -- for example, a yeast dispenser; audible signals for when to add yeast or other ingredients (such as fruit or nuts); a preheat function; programmable settings; and dual paddles, which experts say do a better job of kneading than single paddles.
One of the most popular bread machine features is the delay start, which allows you to add ingredients and choose the settings at night, and awake to the aroma of freshly baked bread the next morning -- or set it in the morning for fresh bread at dinnertime. Even the least-expensive machines usually have that option, so it's not something you'll need to pay extra for. A more recent feature -- a one-touch, gluten-free setting -- gets raves from those who have gluten intolerance, but miss their bread fix.
Once you have your homemade bread, you'll need a good toaster to brown it to perfection. Our report on toasters has some great recommendations. Or, check out our toaster oven report for appliances that can toast, bake, broil and roast.
How we found the best bread makers
Bread machines tend to be scorned by professional cooks, who say they simply don't make decent bread. One professional kitchen test site, in testing -- and not really recommending -- a handful of bread machines, says "…you're more likely to find these appliances at yard sales than on kitchen counters."
Well, we don't like food snobs and we love bread machines, and so do thousands of home cooks. As a result, we rely heavily on owner reviews, and there are hundreds, sometimes thousands, for the top models of bread makers. These user reviews are extremely useful because the range of experience is so vast. Experienced bakers can speak to the customizable options of the machines, while first-timers are a great resource for judging initial ease of use and performance. Because most of the bread machines in this report have been around for years, with no changes in design, users can give helpful input on long-term durability as well. This wide range of knowledge gave us a consensus of opinion by thoughtful, knowledgeable users that was extremely helpful in finalizing our selections. The results of our research is our picks for the best bread machines, plain and fancy.
The best bread machines
If you really love bread and eat it every day, you'll never regret buying a fully-featured bread machine. If you're just dipping your toes into the bread machine waters, you might prefer to start with a cheap bread machine. If you love bread, but can't tolerate gluten, you'll want to see our discussion of gluten-free bread machines.
There's no better reviewed bread machine than the Zojirushi BB-CEC20 (Est. $250). It's highly versatile, easy to use and turns out perfect bread virtually every single time. It can also make cakes, French bread, cookies, pasta and even meat loaf.
Users praise the BB-CEC20 for its many options, noting in particular its 10 total cycles. Three of those cycles are quick, and users say it's nice to have fresh, warm bread in about 2 hours or so. There are other special recipe settings as well, and a very comprehensive recipe book that teaches you how to use them is included. The three crust-color options include light, medium and dark, and the bread maker has a 13-hour programmable timer so you can come home to, or wake up to, a hot loaf of bread. Users say that the BB-CEC20 is solid and durable. Many owners have owned this Zojirushi bread maker for years, have baked hundreds of loaves, and say that they still come out perfectly.
One of this bread makers most popular features is its shape. While most bread machines make a vertical loaf that results in almost "round" slices when you cut them, the BB-CEC20 is a horizontal design and that results in bread slices that are more like store bought – better for sandwiches and toast, say users. They also love that it has a sourdough starter function, since many people feel that sourdough bread is one of the healthiest types you can eat.
The Zojirushi BB-CEC20 bread machine uses dual paddles to mix dough. Expert bakers agree that bread makers with dual paddles do a better job of kneading than single-paddle machines, which can leave bits of flour and other ingredients unmixed in the corners of the bowl. Users agree, consistently noting the efficiency of the dual paddles, and most are pleased with the machine's performance. It is large and heavy, but owners also say its brushed stainless finish is attractive enough to sit out on the counter.
Smaller families or singles might instead appreciate the Zojirushi BB-HAC10 (Est. $165), which makes just 1-pound loaves. It has some good features, too, although not as many as its bigger brother. Those features include two crust-color settings, a 13-hour timer and a number of customizable settings. The BB-HAC10 requires less counter space than the larger BB-CEC20 and weighs less, but otherwise operates similarly. It only makes vertical loaves, however; while the larger Zojirushi make horizontal loaves. If making your bread from scratch is a priority and you don't need a bigger machine, this smaller Zojirushi BB-HAC10 bread maker is a solid choice.