If it’s been a few decades since you gave any thought to your bread machine — and if the memory of it conjures pale, soft, gummy loaves with lumpy tops and paddle-shaped cavities in their bases — I can relate. Back in the '90s when I was just learning how to bake, the bread machine was my gateway appliance to homemade bread, and while I loved it then, I can attest that my bread was far from perfect. Thankfully, my skills have come a long way since then — and so has my bread.
Because with a little know-how, a bread machine is a useful tool capable of much more than just set-it-and-forget-it sandwich loaves. The trick is to learn to take control of the machine, regarding it less as a passive appliance that makes bread at the push of a button, and more of a tool that can streamline certain steps and enhance your own baking practice.
What’s the best bread machine?
While all bread machines generally work in the same way (by mixing, kneading, proofing, and baking a loaf of bread in an enclosed chamber), the Zojirushi Home Bakery Virtuoso Plus performs these tasks much better than any other model I’ve used.
With a strong motor and two paddles (rather than one), it kneads dough thoroughly and evenly, strengthening it through robust stretching. The Zojirushi also bakes traditionally shaped loaves rather than awkwardly tall, square ones, so that your finished slices have a familiar shape and your sandwiches aren’t unwieldy in size. And I love the pan’s durable nonstick lining — mine hasn’t become the least bit scuffed and scratched despite using the machine several times a week for the past year.
Why you can (and should) customize the settings on your bread machine
One way to think of your bread machine is as a temperature-controlled mixing and baking chamber with optional presets, which I hope broadens the way you think about its uses. Because while I do often make a loaf of bread start-to-finish in my machine, frequently I override certain settings, or isolate only the Dough or Bake functions, forcing the machine to adapt to my recipe and my schedule. This is particularly helpful if you’d like to lengthen the dough's first rise while baking naturally leavened bread, for instance.
For example, you can mix and knead your dough in your bread machine for 10 to 15 minutes, until it’s soft and elastic. Then stop the machine, cover the pan with plastic wrap or a bowl cover, then transfer it to the refrigerator for a long, slow overnight rise. The next day, you’ll shape the loaf for your pan, return it to the bread machine baking chamber, shut the lid, and proof the loaf a second time in the machine while it’s turned off. When it’s time to bake, select a “Homemade” custom setting on the Zojirushi and set it to “Bake” for about an hour, and you can finish cooking the loaf directly in the machine where it proofed. (This may seem like a long time to bake, but because of the relatively low temperature of the machine — between 325°F and 350°F — and the large size of bread machine loaves, baking in them usually takes longer than in the home oven.)
This may sound complicated, but once you give it a try, you’ll see that it’s not — and more importantly, you’ll see how the machine can be manipulated to suit your own recipes and baking habits.
How the Dough setting helps you make (almost) any kind of bread
One of the best ways to experience the benefits of a bread machine is to utilize the “Dough” setting, which is as simple as it sounds: The machine simply kneads the dough, and then creates an optimal warm environment for it to undergo its first rise. It usually takes about an hour and a half total, and it’s tremendously useful for any yeasted dough, including both scratch recipes and baking mixes. For example, to make Soft Dinner Rolls from a mix, simply combine all the ingredients in your bread machine and select the Dough cycle. The machine will mix and knead the dough until it’s perfectly smooth and elastic. Then, after kneading, it creates a warm environment for the dough to rise.
The Zojirushi even has a punch-down step, which deflates the dough in the middle of the first rise and keeps it from over-proofing. Once the cycle completes, turn the dough out onto a work surface, shape your dough into rolls (or a loaf, or a braided loaf, or mini-loaves ... I encourage you to get creative), proof the rolls in a warm spot in your kitchen, and once they’ve doubled in size, proceed with baking in your home oven.
Baker’s tip: Because of the heat generated by the bread machine, start with cool or cold ingredients. This helps to prevent over-proofing.
Is using a bread machine easier than a stand mixer?
Because it performs all its functions inside a lidded chamber, bread machine baking is an incredibly clean and tidy process, much more so than using a stand mixer in my experience. And because a bread machine is also more energy efficient than a home oven, creating a lot less heat in the kitchen, it can be an ideal way to bake bread when you’re dealing with a warm environment or even if, for some reason, you need to bake bread but don’t have access to a full kitchen.
And for mixing doughs, both the kneading and the first rise can take place with the push of a button, and the temperature for the dough’s rise is reliable and consistent, like a small electric proofing box. This makes the weather much less of a factor when making bread, in that a cold kitchen (or a swampy summer one) won’t interfere with the dough's fermentation and proofing.
Baker’s tip: For ease and efficiency, use a digital scale. Set your bread machine’s baking pan on your digital scale and tare it to zero. Then add your ingredients one by one, taring it to zero each time.
Can I pause or interrupt a bread machine’s cycle?
With all the buttons for presets and the promise of hands-free baking, it may seem like you can’t get in the way of a bread machine doing its thing. But this isn’t true, and in fact, for best bread machine results it’s best to intervene every now and then. Pausing your cycle or even just lifting up the lid to get a closer look at the dough inside will not cause the machine to restart. Rather, the Zojirushi will pause its operation if the lid is open, and then resume as soon as it’s closed.
Start by checking the progress of the dough as it kneads, using a flexible spatula to reach into the pan and scrape any dry patches from the corners or sides into the mass of dough. For new recipes or unfamiliar environments (such as a dry climate or high humidity), it’s also a good idea to stop periodically to monitor the hydration level of your dough, adding a little flour if it looks exceptionally sticky or more liquid if it seems dry.
Additionally, during the first rise, I like to open the lid and give the dough a quick stretch and fold. This isn’t strictly necessary, but it helps me to gauge the dough's progress and test its strength and elasticity.
And after the dough has undergone its first rise, I often pause the cycle and shape the dough myself rather than let the machine do it, which yields a more attractive baked loaf with even, round doming. You can do this by paying attention to when the second punch-down occurs on your machine and pausing it then. Lift the lid, remove the dough to shape the loaf, then reinsert it into the machine and allow the machine to pick up where it left off.
But the Zojirushi offers an easier option, in which you can create two “Homemade” or custom cycles. In the first Homemade cycle, select the “Knead” course for 15 minutes and “Rise 1” for 45 minutes to 60 minutes, for the first rise. At the completion of this cycle (and once the dough has doubled in size) remove it from the machine and shape the dough by hand. Then return it to the machine and program a second Homemade cycle, selecting the “Rise 3” course for 45 to 60 minutes, which will proof the dough for the last time before baking, and “Bake” for 1:00 to 1:20 minutes.
Baker’s tip: When you pause the machine to shape your loaf, you can also remove the paddles from the pan; there will still be small holes in the bottom of the baked loaf, but they’ll be much less of an eyesore. But beware that the exposed paddle-holders aren’t coated in nonstick lining, so to prevent sticking, lightly grease the two little rods with butter or nonstick spray before returning the dough to the pan.
It may seem that a bread machine can only be used for one-stop-shop sandwich loaves, where you have no choice but to surrender to the machine’s settings and whims. And they’re certainly optimized for that. But for any yeasted dough — from sandwich loaves, dinner rolls, and cinnamon buns, to focaccia dough, pizza dough, and pan-fried flatbreads — a bread machine is a reliable and useful tool. Because with a little attention to the process, minor intervention, and clever use of presets such as the Dough program, it makes high-quality, homemade bread ever more attainable, and even more of a regular fixture in the kitchen.
Pick up a Zojirushi Home Bakery Virtuoso Plus Bread Machine and see for yourself how it can enhance your home bread-baking practice. And bonus: free shipping!
Cover photo by Kristin Teig; food styling by Liz Neily.