Bread makers have garnered a bit of a mixed reputation since the first one emerged in the 1980s, designed by the company now known as Panasonic. While they offer the chance to produce freshly baked bread with minimal effort, purists can look on them as a bit of a cheat.
To which you might say: yes, but isn't that the whole point? In researching this article, I spoke to various bakers, and the general response was along the lines of: “The French would never buy a bread maker”, or “mentioning a bread maker to a baker is like saying 'Voldemort' at Hogwarts.” To me, those views carry a whiff of elitism – we don’t all have the time or willpower to make fresh bread daily by hand.
I'm more in accordance with Chris Young of the Real Bread Campaign: “Of course, we’re delighted when people roll up their sleeves and delve into the flour to mix, knead and shape by hand,” he explains. “But there are many reasons why the Real Bread Campaign also supports the use of machines.”
Young cites those reasons as: accessibility (if you’re not able to get to the shops or a bakery, for example); saving energy (it costs less in energy than baking in a domestic oven); and control (knowing what goes into your bread and, ultimately, your body). The pros can turn their noses up if they wish; for the rest of us, bread makers present a very viable means of eating tasty home-cooked dough.
The best bread makers are fairly simple (though sometimes bulky) appliances that mostly follow the same lines. You’ll get measuring devices and a bread pan into which the ingredients go, before the pan is placed inside the machine. There’ll be a series of buttons on the machine, which allow you to toggle through the settings to reach the bread you want (white, brown, French, etc.). And you'll most likely get the choice of light, medium or dark crust.
The better machines allow you to make different sized loaves (small, medium, large). All have timers, so you can make sure you wake up to fresh warm bread, if you like. Kneading is done by a paddle, which stays in during the baking (and often, on lesser machines, gets lodged into the end product, meaning you have to hook it out – hook provided).
All the appliances I reviewed for this article come with instruction booklets that feature several recipes – white, brown, etc. I stuck to these, as I’m told that going rogue can lead to poor results; these recipes have been tailed specifically for the units. You do have to be precise with ingredients and instructions.
Overall the machines were pretty easy to use, and offered a good range of options. Some do gluten free, sourdough (not sure how), pizza dough, cakes, even jam or yoghurt. I tested each appliance using its provided recipes for basic breads, from white to brown, rapid settings to slower; and I tried some jazzier options too: pizza dough; sourdough; gluten free; French bread.
Overall, I found the browns to perform much better than whites – though perhaps that reflects personal taste.
Ultimately, it’s what comes out at the end that counts, so in testing a heavier weight was placed on how tasty the bread was (it ranged from awful to not bad at all).
Here’s what I found, starting with my favourite...
Due to problems arising from the Covid-19 lockdown, some of the products tested in this article may be temporarily unavailable for online order.
1. Panasonic Croustina hard crust bread maker SD-ZP2000KXC
Why we like it: Simple to use and consistently top results
The original and, to my mind, still the best. It’s a bit bulky, there’s no denying it, but if you want a good sized loaf, you’ll need a relatively chunky machine – smaller bread makers tended to make enough only for a single breakfast, for two people max. Its monochrome black also lends it an air of elegance compared with some others; the kind of thing that wouldn’t look out of place on most kitchen worktops.
Bread makers can be a little noisy, particularly during the initial kneading stage. This was on the quiet side. The bread didn’t come out quite as seamlessly as a couple of other machines (nothing a little spatula couldn’t help), but the kneading paddle didn’t once remain in the loaf.
I found it a little irksome that you can't peep in to see progress via a window at the top. But that bread! I could eat it every day. Ok, it’s not quite like getting a fresh sourdough from your local artisan/hipster bakery, but that costs £4 – and the Panasonic Croustina comes damnably close.
Obviously the machine is quite an outlay, but if you use it regularly you’ll make that back. The bread really was consistently good.
A regular white came out beautifully golden, with a great crunch. It smelt nice, with a pleasing taste of French bread. The middle was a slither on the sticky side, but once toasted the crumb softened, lightened up, and its flavour really accentuated. A quick white, while not quite as good as the regular, was perfectly adequate.
A standard brown took five hours (most are around three) but perhaps that extra kneading, proving and baking is what made it stand out. It looked gorgeous. A very dark brown crust (no white flour was added, just how I like it), and a fluffy crumb that wasn’t sweet or salty. When toasted, I couldn’t fault it.
What could I fault here? Well, the Panasonic is pricey – almost twice as much as the next dearest in this list. But honestly, I'd pay that in an instant. If you want top results from the best bread baker out there, this is the one to get.
2. Tower T11002 digital bread maker
Why we like it: Good looks; a wide range of options
Said to specialise in gluten free, and with sourdough and ferment settings, this bread maker gets top marks for variety. I like its utilitarian looks; it’s operated by a highly responsive touchscreen; and you can make different-sized loaves.
The loaves I made varied in quality, but overall I was impressed. A small, quick white loaf, just an hour and 38 minutes from start to finish, was misshapen and asymmetrical. It smelt a little sour (it wasn’t a sourdough). But it tasted really rather good; and was nicely soft with a crispy crust. A very acceptable white toasting bread, if a tad salty.
A brown loaf (two parts brown to one part white flour), looked wonderful: uniformly dark golden, a medium height with a nice domed top. It smelt really good, like I’d entered an old-school bakery. Flavour-wise, it was great, though a smidgen on the sweet side. The texture wasn’t at all stodgy, as is wont with bread makers. The crust, not too crunchy, was ideal for sandwiches.
I attempted a 'sourdough', too. I'm not quite sure how it qualifies as sourdough, but it was light and airy, and one of my favourite loaves overall.
The one problem was that I just couldn’t master gluten free. As someone unaccustomed to that area, perhaps I was using the wrong flour (though it did say gluten free); but the bread just didn’t work. The same, to be fair, can be said for gluten-free loaves I tried on other machines. Clearly, it takes a bit of mastering.
I liked this machine, though there were one or two qualms preventing it from finishing higher. Firstly, it was really noisy while kneading. The kneading process doesn’t last all that long – perhaps 30 minutes – but if others can be less aggressive, then it’s a point worth making. The touchscreen was also not the most responsive, often leaving me a tad frustrated.
But here’s the good stuff: instructions were very well explained. You can watch the progress through a see-through area. The kneading paddle never got stuck inside the loaf. And, bar one bread, they were all very tasty.
A basic white loaf turned out very tall, attractively light golden in colour, and crusty on top – ideal for sandwiches. It did taste a tad brioche-y, but when toasted it took on wonderful charred flavours. A French was very uniform looking, with a classic loaf shape and a decent texture and smell. The brown was properly crusty, again a good size for sarnies, and, thanks to the recipe instructing 100pc whole wheat rather than a mix, it tasted healthy and hearty.
A smaller device that ends up making very tall and thin loaves – you’ll get perfectly tasty bread, just not much of it. The first loaf I tried, a basic white, had a nice, artisanal looking crack on top. It was probably the closest approximation to an average, fresh white loaf you’d get in a bakery, if a touch on the sweet size.
The aforementioned height was ideal for a proper slice of toast – if only you could get more than four or five slices out of it. Toasted, with a bit of butter, it was lovely.
A brown bread was similar: good bread but not enough of it. It was soft, making it hard to cut a neat slice, and a little chewy and dense. Toasted, it was excellent. A gluten free was disastrous – rock hard.
As for the device itself: simple, easy to use controls (with actual buttons!); a peep hole to watch progress; a nice plain white appearance. A slight let down was the aggressive kneading process: it shook pretty violently. And the instructions didn’t tell me how long breads would take, which was a bit disappointing.
A really chunky device – a bit too chunky in all honesty. Though at least that means you get a sizeable loaf. Not as loud as some – more a slow and study grunting noise. The kneading paddle got stuck in every time, which is a shame. The touchscreen controls worked fine.
A white turned out a little low, with dents in one side. It was nicely golden in colour, though, with a pleasing crunch. But I found it a bit too sweet and stodgy. Toasted, it went slightly chewy. A brown was very uneven in looks, and a bit on the salty side, though perfectly nice to eat.
Overall, the machine made good-if-not-standout bread, though I found constantly having to pull out the kneading paddle a bit of a bore.
6. Lakeland white compact daily loaf bread maker
Compact is all well and good, but you’ll barely get enough for breakfast out of this, if there’s more than one of you. I attempted quite a lot of bread with the Lakeland, determined to get it right; I didn’t. Every time, even when I buttered it up, the kneading paddle ended up inside the loaf; often, pulling it out meant ripping off half the bread. The breads usually didn’t come out when ready without the determined help of a spatula.
A white bread smelt almost of burnt sugar, and raw in places; it was like the bad white bread you find in supermarkets in South America or Southeast Asia. Kids would probably love the sweetness. The texture was scone-like.
A whole wheat loaf had a huge bubble on top, though it smelt fine – like the stuff you make in kindergarten. Not particularly impressive, but perfectly edible (though very salty). The texture was nice and airy, however.
I also tried the pizza dough, where the machine kneads the dough but you're then left to your devices. While the pizza didn't blow me away, it wasn't bad at all.
Break maker FAQ
How long does it take to make bread in a bread maker?
It varies, massively. Most have a quick bake setting, where you can make bread in under two hours. Generally, I found these to be less tasty than the regular breads, which range from anywhere between two and a half hours to six. You can also time your loaf. For example, if you want to wake up to freshly baked warm bread, you can chuck all the ingredients in the bread pan before bed and time it for when you wake up.
What ingredients do I need to make bread in a bread maker?
The usual: flour, water, salt, yeast. Most will also require sugar, fat (butter or oil, specified) and milk powder. Overall the breads were too sweet, so I'd suggest tinkering with the sugar. Ingredients have to be added in the correct order, always shown in the recipe booklet.
If you want to try your hand at real baking, here's an easy recipe for a classic sourdough from Flora Shedden
Weigh the water for this recipe so the quantities are exact. This is great with blue cheese and rocket.
- For the sourdough starter
- 300g strong white flour
- 300g water
For the bread
- 350g strong white flour
- 100g sourdough starter
- 10g salt
- Begin your starter. In a bowl or container mix together 100g flour and 100g water. Cover loosely and leave in a warmish room (too cold and the yeast won’t develop).
- The following day add a further 100g water and 100g flour, stirring again. You may notice a few bubbles at this stage and an increase in volume. On the third day repeat the process. By now you should notice plenty of bubbles, a rise in volume and a fairly strong scent. If none of these pointers are noticeable add more water and flour and give it another 24 hours. Once your starter is bubbling it is ready to be used.
- For the bread, mix together all the ingredients in a bowl to form a rough dough. Knock it onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 10 to 15 minutes (you can do this in a free-standing mixer). It will feel very sticky to begin with but avoid adding more flour. Once the dough is very elastic place in a lightly greased bowl and cover, to double in size ideally overnight or for at least eight hours. If time, put in the fridge for 16 hours for a great sour flavour.
- Knock the risen dough back on the surface and shape, quickly and with lightly floured hands, drawing all the dough in on itself to form a tight ball with a seam at the bottom. Flour a proving basket and place inside, seam facing up. Cover loosely and allow to prove for four hours. Heat the oven to its highest setting. Put in a baking stone, tray or cast-iron pot wide enough for the bread. Once the bread has proved, remove the hot tray from the oven and quickly tip the loaf onto it, seam side down. Slash a pattern across the top, cutting at a 45-degree angle.
- Return to the oven and bake for 14 to 20 minutes depending on your oven. The loaf should be brown and hollow sounding when tapped. Allow to cool fully before slicing.