Let's start with the basics: a breadmaker.
I use my breadmaker at least once a week, and although I do quite a bit of experimenting with it, I've only had a few flops. I still buy bread from the store sometimes, but we prefer bread from the machine. It's definitely tastier, as well as cheaper!
I am, by no means, the expert on bread baking. But, you don't have to be an expert to use a breadmaker! Here's what I've learned after 11 years and three bread machines:
- It's super quick and easy to turn out a delicious loaf of bread. Just dump in the ingredients and push a few buttons.
- Homemade bread is cheaper than bread bought from the store.
- Homemade bread does not have ingredients that you can't pronounce.
- It just tastes better!
What kind of breadmaker is recommended?
There are all kinds of options out there, and just as many opinions about what kind is best. I have this one. (Check out the reviews...yikes! Some people think it's a piece of junk, but others love it...including me!) It makes a beautiful, normal-shaped loaf, because the loaf pan is shaped horizontally instead of vertically. Many bread machines have vertical loaf pans, which results in square-ish shaped slices of bread with a hard crust on all four sides. If you don't have a breadmaker and you are looking to buy one, I'd highly recommend looking for one with the horizontal loaf pan. If you currently own one with a vertical loaf pan and you don't care for those square-shaped pieces of bread, read on...
What kind of ingredients do you need to make bread? And where do you buy them?
- The ingredients needed are pretty basic. Most recipes include water or milk, oil or butter, sugar, salt, bread flour, and yeast.
- Regarding bread flour: Most grocery stores carry 5 pound bags of Pillsbury or King Arthur bread flour, but I haven't seen a generic version of bread flour. If you are just getting started with your breadmaker (and you aren't sure if you're going to use it very much), pick up a bag of bread flour in the baking aisle. If you bake bread on a regular basis, check out the bread flour at Costco. It comes in a 50 pound bag. Nope, I'm not kidding. When I get home, I transfer it into gallon ziploc bags and freeze it. It's a huge pain, but at less than half the price of Pillsbury bread flour, it's worth my time.
- Regarding yeast: Most recipes will call for either "active dry yeast" or "bread machine yeast". You CAN substitute one for the other, and there are conversion charts readily available online (1 tsp of bread machine yeast is not the same as 1 tsp of active dry yeast, so make sure to do your research). However, I have not had good results subbing these out. You'll generally have better results if you use the kind of yeast your recipe calls for. Also, if a breadmaker recipe gives you a choice (for example: 1 1/2 tsp of bread machine yeast OR 2 1/4 tsp of active dry yeast), always go with the bread machine yeast. After you open a jar or container of yeast, make sure to keep it in the fridge or freezer. I buy bread machine yeast from Meijer, but Costco carries a large block of active dry yeast (again, HALF the price, and I freeze it).
A few more tips:
- My original breadmaker came with an instruction manual that specified the order in which to add ingredients to the loaf pan. I still load my ingredients this way, and it seems to work well: liquids first, then sugar, salt, and spices. Next, evenly sprinkle in the flour, and make a small indentation in the center of the flour. Put the yeast in this indentation. I haven't ever researched WHY this is recommended, but it's always worked for me, so I just keep doing it that way.
- If you currently own a breadmaker with a vertical loaf pan and you don't care for the square-ish slices of bread that it yields, don't despair! Just dump the ingredients in as usual and use the dough setting. When the cycle is complete, punch down the dough and transfer it into a greased loaf pan. Cover the pan with greased plastic wrap, and let it rise 2-4 hours, or until it's almost as big as you want it (it will rise a little more in the oven). Bake it in the oven (basic white bread will bake at 350 for about 30 minutes). It's slightly more work than just using the breadmaker for the entire process, but at least you don't have to mix the dough by hand!
- Occasionally my breadmaker will not mix everything perfectly. Sometimes there are dried bits of dough stuck to the side of the loaf. This is not such a big deal...I just scrape them off when I'm slicing the bread. But if I want to avoid this completely, I check on my dough as it's mixing. If I see one of those dried pieces not getting mixed in (usually it will be stuck to the side of the loaf pan), I just pull it off with a spoon and dump it into the dough. Shut the lid and let it continue doing its thing.
- Don't be afraid to take your bread out early! We prefer a soft crust, and even when I set my machine on the lightest crust setting, it still turns out a little crispy. As a result, I take most loaves out of the machine 15-20 minutes before the baking is "complete". This doesn't work for all recipes, but if your crust is turning out crispier than you'd like, it's worth a try.
- When I cut my bread, I set a wire cooling rack over my sink. Slice the bread on the cooling rack, and the crumbs drop right into the sink rather than flying all over the counter.