Do you bake bread in a bread machine?
Many of you apparently do, judging by the popularity of our bread machine recipes. And for good reason: the bread machine is a great way for first-time bread bakers to get started. And, for you seasoned "yeasties," it can be a welcome shortcut when you simply don't have time to bake bread the standard way.
I usually knead dough in my Zojirushi Virtuoso – it's a WONDERFUL kneading machine – then take it out, shape it, and bake the regular way, in my oven. That's because I'm often baking rolls, or flatbread, or bread sticks, things that can't be baked in the Zo's standard rectangular loaf pan.
But when I need a quick loaf of bread for croutons, say, or bread crumbs, or French toast – yeah, I'm happy to pop the ingredients into the machine and let it do all the work, from mixing to kneading to rising to baking.
It would be great if the bread machine's chief product – sandwich loaves – would come out perfect every time. Beautifully risen, symmetrically domed, a lovely crust with no floury spots.
But honestly? That's not the reality of bread machine baking. What you save in time and effort, you often lose in quality.
Still, with just a minimal amount of effort, you can step in and help your bread machine as it kneads and shapes and bakes – thus ensuring yourself a higher percentage of perfect (or nearly so) loaves.
You just need to be willing to touch the dough. Honestly, that's all it takes.
Fair warning: If you're someone who likes to "set it and forget it" – add the ingredients, press Start, and come back 3 hours later – then this post isn't for you. And if you have a reliable recipe, one that turns out great every time – congratulations, stick with it.
But if you sometimes end up with the dreaded "ski slope loaf" –
Or don't love those massive paddles that take huge, ripping bites out of the bottom of your loaf, then read on: this one's for you.
Let's make some bread. We'll go with our most popular bread machine recipe – Bread Machine Bread – Easy As Can Be.
Step 1: Put everything into the bucket of your bread machine. I like to put the liquids in first; I feel the dough is less prone to floury spots doing it that way.
Tip 1: Open the lid and check the dough as it kneads.
So many people seem afraid to "interfere" with their bread machine as it works. But honestly, nothing bad will happen if you open the lid and poke at the dough.
Start watching the dough about 10 minutes into its kneading cycle; it shouldn't be viscous and liquid-like (top), nor dry, stiff, and "gnarly" (bottom). As my fellow blogger Susan Reid says, "If you touch the dough and your finger comes back coated, the dough is too wet. If you touch the dough and it feels like poking a beach ball, it’s too dry."
The dough should have formed a cohesive unit and, if not "smooth as a baby's bottom" yet, should be headed in that direction. If it's not, add more flour (if it's too soft), or water (if it's dry).
Tip 2: Once the dough is done kneading, take a paper towel and wipe any excess flour out of the bucket.
This will help prevent floury spots on the crust.
Tip 3: To prevent big rips and holes in the bottom of your loaf, take the paddles out of the bucket before the loaf bakes, just before its final rise.
The timing for this can be a bit tricky; but once you figure it out, you're good to go forever.
Get out your kitchen timer, and put it in count up (stopwatch) mode. Start your timer when you press "Start" on your bread machine (even if your machine has a "rest" or "preheat" mode right at the beginning); you're simply trying to gauge the amount of time between when you press start, and when the final rise begins.
You want to be around when your bread starts its final rise. Most bread machine manuals show a timeline of steps: e.g., preheat 31 minutes, knead 19 minutes, first rise 35 minutes, second rise 20 minutes, etc. A little simple arithmetic will give you an idea when the final rise will start.
Hang around the kitchen when you figure that final rise is imminent. You'll hear the machine start up momentarily; it'll be knocking down the dough, which means the final rise is about to begin. When you hear that happen, stop your timer and check the time. (On my Zojirushi Virtuoso, it's 1 hour, 45 minutes).
So there you have it: you now know, for the next time you bake bread, that 1 hour, 45 minutes (or whatever) will elapse between the time you press "Start" and when the final rise begins. So whenever you make bread-machine bread, and want to remove the paddles before the loaf bakes – pull out your timer and put it to good use.
Reach into the bucket, move the dough aside, and lift out the paddles.
The loaf on the left baked with its paddles in. On the right, no paddles. What a difference!
Tip 4: Reshape the loaf before its final rise.
Yes, this is where you prevent those ski-slope loaves. When you open the lid of the machine to remove the bucket's paddles, check out the shape of the loaf. It might be just fine, filling the pan from end to end.
Or not (top photo). If the dough isn't in an acceptable loaf shape, take it out of the bucket, shape it into a nice, symmetrical log, and put it back into the bucket (center photo). It will rise nice and evenly (bottom photo)...
...and bake into a lovely loaf.
Don't limit yourself to a traditional loaf shape, either. Divide the dough in half, and shape each half into a ball. Lay them side by side in the bucket for a break-apart double loaf: enjoy half, share half with your neighbor.
Or take those two halves of dough, shape them into logs, and make a simple twist.
Want something fancier? Go for it – see our recipe for Buttery Garlic-Herb Pull-Apart Bread, made in your bread machine.
Finally, isn't it annoying when you've done everything right, and your loaf still comes out looking... well, not as good as it could?
You've pulled your gorgeous loaf out of the pan, and within minutes it develops a crust as wrinkled as Yoda. GRRRR... what's up with that? And how do you prevent it?
Tip 5: Cool the bread in the machine, instead of on a rack on the counter.
As soon as your bread is done, remove the bucket from the machine, take out the bread (which will be easy, since the paddles aren't there to impede its progress), and gently set the loaf back into the machine, sans bucket.
Crack the lid open an inch or so, and let the bread cool right in the turned-off machine. The still-warm (but gradually cooling) air helps prevent moisture from condensing on your loaf's surface – no wrinkles!
So, what's the baking science behind this? If your loaf hits the cooler air outside the machine, any moisture migrating from inside reaches the top surface and condenses, forming water droplets that cause the crust to shrink unevenly – in other words, to wrinkle, like the loaf on the right, below.
The double loaf on the left is a tiny bit wrinkled, but not nearly as much.
Final step: enjoy your wonderful homemade bread. Who says you can't bake a perfectly acceptable loaf right in your bread machine?
Do you have a favorite bread machine tip? Please share in "comments," below. Let's all learn from one another!