BBC Food blog: Bread: man v machine

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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.
 

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.

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?

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