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Bread: man v machine

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Suzy Mckeever Suzy Mckeever | 10:01 UK time, Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Set up

I set out to test the results of making bread at home, with a bread machine and by hand. These are the rules of engagement. I start with the “baker’s percentage” as my recipe for making bread by hand and using a bread machine: 100% flour, 60% water, 2% salt, 2% yeast (in this case: 1 x 7g sachet dried yeast for 500g flour). No milk powder, no fat, no wholemeal. Just good quality organic strong white bread flour.
 

Bread machine and hand-made loaf

Bread machine v handmade: Pamela Anderson v Pam Ayres

 

Round 1

I place all the ingredients, in the right order, in the bread machine. Make my option selections: basic bread, large size, regular bake. The machine is silent and shows me the four hour countdown. Unnervingly it sits there. Silent. I decide to get on with making the other dough.

I quickly realise when making dough by hand that the 300ml (to 500g flour) I’d measured out for my loaf isn’t quite enough; the dough is dry and in danger of being knotty. I must be all of 10ml short, but it matters. This is impossible to gauge for the bread machine, as I never get my hands on the dough, but I assume its mechanical arms will cope with a stiffer dough. Nevertheless I chuck in an extra 10ml to be safe.
I knead the dough by hand and feel as it slowly becomes smoother, more elastic and springier to the touch. I work the dough for 20 minutes, and am left unconvinced that I’ve done enough; it’s not the silken, stretchy piece of lycra you’re told to expect. It’s more porridge-y. But I successfully apply the window test (stretching the dough as thinly as possible, without it tearing, so you can clearly see light through it), and figure it’s had enough (as much as I’m willing to give it). It looks beautiful, bouncy, and has a baby’s bum quality to it. I leave it alone for its first prove.
Meanwhile, the taciturn machine has started making sounds. Soft washing sounds as the machine kneads the dough. It’s surprisingly quiet, and makes a surprisingly nice sound. I leave the kitchen to its soft swooshing and the rising of the hand-made dough.
One and a half hours later, the hand-made dough has risen well. I knock it back and shape it. I haven’t used any excess flour when kneading, and the loaf is quite dry, not sticky at all. I shape it and place it in a tin for the second prove, but wonder about the dryness, shaping to dough has left folds in the underside of the loaf, rather than it amalgamating. We’ll just have to see when it’s risen and baked.

The read-out on the machine says 2hrs 20min remaining. Taciturn.

The second prove on the hand-made bread takes another 1½ hours, so we are level-pegging in time with the bread machine. I place the proved loaf in the oven and bake for 10 minutes at 220C/425F/Gas 7 then lower the temperature to 180C/350F/Gas 4 and bake for a further 40 minutes. By this time the kitchen is filled with the competing smells of the baking loaves.

Beep, beep, beep, beep. Bread machine done. Bip, bip, bip, bip. Oven timer clocking off. Both loaves come out. And the results are in.
Hand-made loaf: looks like a hand-made loaf.
Bread machine: loaf looks like an orc.

Disappointing hand-made loaf and misshapen bread machine loaf

Hand-made (left), bread machine orc loaf (right)

 After cooling and cutting it becomes even more apparent that something is amiss in both camps. Hand-made loaf has not had enough time in the oven, it’s too doughy and dense.  I’m haunted by its earlier dryness. For the orc loaf, I cast my eye over the ‘troubleshooting guide’ in the bread machine manual. ‘Uneven surface?’ You betcha. Possible explanation: too dry. So the extra mechanical dough kneading arms didn’t sort out an even more fundamental problem that this dough was just too dry. This is not food fit to feed our loved ones.

 

Round 2

With the ‘control’ out of the way, it’s time to work out how to get some decent results. I deploy the timer device on the bread machine, to bake the bread overnight. This is genius. I pop in all the ingredients, moving swiftly away from baker’s percentages and following the recipe in the manual to the gram. There’s a greater percentage of water (360ml water to 550g flour). And some fat, and some sugar, but nothing to scare the horses.
I rework a hand-made loaf, with fresh flour and more water, and steel myself during the second prove so there is more rise in the dough before baking it. It’s almost lolling over the edges of the tin. The results are better.
The bread machine version however has gone hyper. Mega-puffed, super bouncy, Pamela Anderson in a loaf! It’s like commercial bread, without the additives.

Taste test

Bread machine: light airy crumb, crisp thin crust. Consensus (with colleagues) was that there was a sweetness to the crust (from the sugar) and we liked the sheen on the crumb from the fat. Taste-wise it was less flavourful than the handmade, which might be a good thing for children. Soft texture when eaten. Ideal spread with jam.
Hand-made: reasonably airy crumb, sweet chewy crust. Denser and more matte crumb than the bread machine, but a better aroma and fuller taste. Quintessentially tasted like bread, with a toasty scent from the crust. Brilliant for sandwiches, would provide a good counterpart for other flavours without dominating the flavour nor getting lost. Firm texture when eaten.

Conclusions

I was completely won over with the ease of the bread machine, but its aesthetics aren’t great. Loaves with large imprints on the sides and holes where the kneading paddles have been, takes some of the joy out of a loaf. But if you’ve got a bread-hungry household (packed lunches, sandwiches, etc.) then the ease of the bread machine wins hands down over kneading, proving and baking by hand.
The bread machine also lays down the laws. Deviating from its specific measurements will result in weird loaves that are hard even for their creator to love. But stick to the given recipes and it’ll reward you in fluffy spades.
The time to complete both methods is the same (four hours), but the bread machine needs no attention whatsoever beyond loading it up and selecting the right options. And it will give you a lofty airy loaf, the kind a hand baker could never come near.
Hand-baking is an aesthetic pleasure from start to finish. The sensory pleasure derived from handling fresh dough is incomparable. You can shape the dough any way you want, and watching it bloom in the oven is truly a joy. All of which is missed in the bread machine.
But to feed a family, you’ve got to concede there are easier ways of getting a healthy ‘homemade’ loaf than making it entirely by hand.

Malted brown bread loaves

Hand-made loaf winning the aesthetics challenge

 

Do you love your bread machine? Got any tips to share on home baking, by hand or otherwise?

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    I am surprised you had to knead for 20 mins. I make all my own bread by hand. I use 1 of 2 methods for kneading. One method takes max 10 mins and the other using the French folding method takes about 2mins. From start to finish I can make 4 loaves in 2 and a half hours with only about 30 mins of actual work. My bread looks good and tastes good.

  • Comment number 2.

    I bake my own bread and kneading for 10 minutes is always sufficient. I also bake at a higher temperature, 220C (200C fan) for 40-45 minutes for a loaf made with 675g flour and it always turns out well. I've never used a bread machine and seeing what the loaves look like I wouldn't want to, much prefer being able to shape my own loaf without it having holes in it.

  • Comment number 3.

    Suzy seems to like a 'lofty airy loaf'. I count as one of the advantages of making my own bread by hand that it isn't as light and fluffy as bought bread or that made by machine. Only 'artisan' bread (just about) compares and that is twice the price of 'ordinary' factory-made bread. I'm surprised too by her time over kneading, I suspect that she will soon learn to judge when it's done enough - I set my timer for 5 minutes and go on if it doesn't feel right. The time spent making the bread is really quite small compared with the satisfaction of home- (and hand) made, always assuming that you have some other reason to be near the kitchen over a few hours. And can anyone recommend a way of proving the dough if the room isn't warm enough (usually a problem in the summer, when the central heating is off)?

  • Comment number 4.

    I prove my bread in the oven if the room is cold. Heat the oven for a few minutes then switch it off. Check the temperature then put the bread in until risen. Once risen take the bread out then heat up the oven and bake as usual. This method works well for me.

  • Comment number 5.

    I use a Panasonic bread maker, and it does a large loaf in 1 hour 55 minutes, on the "Fast Bake" setting. As Suzy mentions, though - very, very sensitive to the correct weight of ingredients, especially the water. But great bread when you get it right.

  • Comment number 6.

    I to use a Panasonic bread make woul agree everything has to be measured correctly. I also use the best of both worlds and sometimes just use my machine to do the mixing and proveing, then finish by hand and bake in the oven. Less hard work and great results

  • Comment number 7.

    Hand made for me every time. Kneading takes max. 10 mins, and if I want a really "airy" loaf I just increase the second proving time. Can't use fancy temperature variations as I have a Rayburn - but always have good results. The secret is in the dough rather than the cooking I find.

  • Comment number 8.

    The perfect place to prove dough is the microwave, not turned on. Works because it is draft free.

  • Comment number 9.

    I love my bread machine - I can be lazy and just tip in the ingredients and let the machine do it all from start from finish, or I can be more creative. But either way I get good, fresh food and cheaper than the flabby stuff passed off as bread in supermarkets.

  • Comment number 10.

    I also love my machine, which I bought 10 yrs ago to avoid the premium in supermarkets on organic loaves. I use less water than recommended and adjust the salt, fat and sugar too. I have been making my own the daily loaf ever since, almost always on the overnight setting so there is fresh bread in the morning. There is nothing to stop me making completely by hand if I feel inclined but I mostly use the dough setting if I am making a more elaborate loaf and I don't think it tastes any different because a machine did the kneading.

  • Comment number 11.

    I also use a Panasonic and wouldn't be without it. I bake all my loaves (wholemeal or white) on the longer setting of 5hrs. This gives more time for the yeast to work and gives a more yeastier flavour - great.

  • Comment number 12.

    I always bake my bread out of the machine as I got fed up with consistency and shape, so best of both worlds

  • Comment number 13.

    My family loved this bread. I took 2 of the dough loaves and froze them after they had risen...

 

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