What the best bread machine has
- Consistent performance. A quality bread maker will turn out loaves that are nicely shaped and have good color, a crisp crust, a light and airy crumb, and, most important, good flavor -- and it will do so loaf after loaf.
- A straightforward instruction manual. Complaints about confusing owner's manuals are not uncommon with bread machines. A good manual should include precise directions, time charts for each cycle, information on cleaning and care, contact information for repairs, and at least a few recipes.
- Relatively quiet operation. A bread maker that rattles and churns, jolting you out of bed at 4 a.m. when your delay-start program kicks in, is not something you will use very often. Some of the cheaper bread machines in this report get panned for noise, so if that's a concern, you'll want to buy the sturdiest -- and hence quietest -- model you can afford.
- Intuitive controls. Displays should be easy to read, and it shouldn't require much time or effort to locate or use a desired setting.
- A basic cycle and a dough cycle. These two cycles are really all you need to make almost any type of bread, all other cycles and options are gravy, and you should pay for them only if you're sure you'll use them.
Know before you go
How many servings do you need? A good rule of thumb is that a 1-pound loaf yields about eight slices and a 2.5-pound loaf, about 20. The latter is sufficient for most people, even those with larger families.
Is loaf shape important to you? Unlike vertical loaves, horizontal ones look more like the bread you'd find in a bakery or supermarket; but most machines that make vertical loafs are cheaper and smaller -- meaning that they take up less counter space.
Do you want to peek? A viewing window is a nifty feature, but experts say it's not essential -- so don't pay more for a model with one unless you're sure you really want it. That said, lots of people, especially those with children, report that they love watching their bread rise.
Will you use a timer? You'll pay more for this feature -- but don't underestimate the pleasure of waking up to bread that started baking while you were snug in your bed, thanks to the delay start.
What kind of bread do you want to bake? A fancy machine with cycles for many different types of baked goods might be appealing, but depending on your needs, you may be perfectly happy with a machine that features a more modest array of cycles.
What's your paddle preference? Single-paddle machines are less expensive and usually do just fine, although most reviewers say dual-paddle machines work best with horizontal pans, so the ingredients can be properly mixed and kneaded.
Do you want loaves with raisins or nuts? If the answer is yes -- meaning you intend to bake fruit or nut breads -- you'll want a machine with an add-ingredient signal, allowing you to pour in add-ons at the right time, ensuring they don't get dried out or mashed up.
Need a loaf fast? Most machines have one or more quick cycles for situations when you need to speed things up. These cycles shave about an hour off the cycle time, but they may produce slightly flatter loaves and require fast-rising yeast.
Do you have special dietary needs? Many bread machines have special setting for gluten-free or dairy-free breads, doughs and pastries. That enables people who can't eat regular bread to still enjoy sandwiches, toast and more.
Value expectations: The dollars and cents of it
One of the benefits of owning a bread machine is that it can actually pay for itself over time. Bakery bread, or even supermarket bread, can add several dollars to a family's weekly grocery bill. By contrast, staples like basic flour, sugar, salt and yeast are fairly inexpensive. Of course, fancier ingredients, like nuts, fruit or specialty flour, may cost more. "Paying off" your bread maker directly correlates to the initial cost of the machine: the cheaper the unit, the faster you'll see a return on your investment.