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 worthy investment. This is one appliance that does the work for you: mixing, kneading, proofing and baking. A bread machine is not a cheap purchase -- the least expensive models are typically $70 or more and high-end units will set you back at least $200. But many say that when you consider the cost of supermarket or bakery bread, a bread machine typically pays for itself over time. As an added benefit, some machines can make a range of goods beyond white and wheat loaves, such as cakes, jam, baguettes, or even meatloaf or lasagna.
But if you think a bread machine will be a low-maintenance investment, think again. Making perfect bread often requires some thought and 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. Some machines are quirky; for example, the crust color you expect when you select "medium" results in a loaf you'd consider "very dark." And sometimes the included recipes produce bread that is dry, sunken or flavorless -- requiring further testing on your part. If you're thinking that a pricier machine will be more hands-off than a cheaper one, that's typically not the case. Oftentimes, the fancier machines beg more attention with their numerous settings and options.
Nevertheless, once you scale the learning curve, which varies from machine to machine, rest assured that baking bread becomes second nature, according to users. In fact, many home bakers report that one of their favorite bread-machine features is 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.
Most machines that cost less than $100 offer several cycles that correspond to different varieties of bread, including white, whole wheat, and French or Italian, and many will have a setting for cakes and a quick cycle. As you move up the price spectrum, machines 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 such as a yeast dispenser; audible signals for when to add yeast or other ingredients such as fruit or nuts; a preheat function; delay-start, programmable settings; and dual paddles, which experts say do a better job of kneading than single paddles.
Regarding safety, the only model currently on the Consumer Product Safety Commission recall list is the West Bend Automatic Bread & Dough Maker, which ceased production in 1995. However, one user posting about the Zojirushi Home Bakery Mini Breadmaker BB-HAC10 reports a smoke condition caused by the machine, and another says the machine started a fire.
To determine the best bread machines, we analyzed reviews of bread makers according to performance, ease of use, appearance and noise. We also considered the price in relation to the value offered. Our research includes results from professional multi-product tests reported in general-interest and specialty online publications as well as user reviews posted on retail and consumer-review websites, which are often more timely than professional reviews and provide perspective on long-term reliability.