The home bread maker has proved its worth in the US. But is it really worth the dough? Our panel finds out
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WILDLY POPULAR in the US, where devotees swap recipes on the Net, bread making machines are starting to interest British consumers. Bakers are instructed to place ingredients in the baking tin, which has a kneading blade at the bottom. Press the correct buttons and the machine heats, kneads, proves, rises and finally cooks the bread, all in around four hours. Unlike some appliances where you spend as much time washing up afterwards as you would have spent making the dish by hand, with home bakeries you only have to wash the loaf tin and kneading blade. So is it time they caught on here?


On our voyage of discovery the panel of testers (comprising Nicholas Allen, Clare Bawden, Claire Blezard, Rabaya Ahmed, and myself) attempted to make fresh bread with each of the units. All of us have successfully made bread by hand and we were keen to find out whether the elbow-grease really could be taken out of home baking.


The question is, do they make what we all long for - not just homely smells, but good bread? Our survey revealed that baking by machine can be every bit as unreliable as baking by hand, and that there is no substitute for skill and experience. We were looking for a machine that produced delicious breads with a minimum of hassle at a realistic price. And all we produced was tasteless and misshapen loaves. In exasperation, I showed these to Dan Schickentanz of De Gustibus, who was voted Best Independent Baker of the Year in 1997. His diagnosis was not encouraging. "The problem is that you're using one machine to do everything," he explained, "and the bread is being steamed rather than baked, which results in anaemic- looking loaves with soft crusts."


pounds 99.50

Claire Blezard - a very good cook and a science graduate to boot - had a torrid time with the LG. "I made four white loaves in this machine, and all of them were like bricks. How could this happen? I was very careful to follow the instructions to the letter and I know how to measure exact quantities. I even tested the yeast to make sure it was fermenting and I didn't want to give up, but after the fourth attempt I was furious." For a second opinion, we went to Steve Caplin, who bought the LG some months ago especially to make gluten-free bread for his son. "The bread always tastes a little stale," he said, "even when freshly made. The crusts are bad - soft and rather pale, but it's fine for making Fred's gluten-free bread. We've also tried to make wholemeal and other breads - sometimes it works, sometimes it just doesn't."


pounds 259.99

The most expensive of the bread makers in the test, Zojirushi's Home Bakery, looks smart and has a host of other features which include jam, butter and cake programmes. It even gives the option of programming a "creative home-made menu". The instruction booklet is complex, as you might expect with a sophisticated computerised machine. After making several basic white loaves, which had an acceptable texture and occasionally a nice brown crust but tasted sweet, like brioche, I progressed to making rye loaves (half rye and half white flour) with far less sugar than instructed (one teaspoon as opposed to two tablespoons). This tasted better than the basic loaf, but had the texture of a crumpet. All loaves exhibited a sizeable L-shaped hole from the kneading arm. I also attempted to adapt a Delia Smith recipe with the "creative program", but gave up. As Nicholas Allen cautioned: "If you don't know how to use the video recorder, don't imagine you can do this."


pounds 99

Nicholas Allen made white loaves and a half-white, half-wholemeal loaf in this and commented: "A bread makermakes a big footprint on your counter top and it's heavy if you intend to put it away and get it out for each baking session. I thought the bread tasted fine but it's nonsense to compare it to specialist breads. The timing on this model is excellent, and there are very clear instructions. But I didn't get that lovely baking smell and I didn't like the lunar landscape tops to the bread. The power lead is too short (less than 60cm), but it is built well. The 11 programmes are quite sufficient - by the time you've worked out a more complicated machine like the Zojirushi, you may as well have made the bread yourself."


From pounds 79

Produced by the same manufacturer, this is effectively an economy version of the Morphy Richards. It makes regular and large loaves; has a "keep warm" function to prevent the bread getting soggy; and has an added ingredient signal for if you want to add, say, raisins after the dough has been kneaded. The touchpad is smooth and the controls are simple to understand. Rabaya Ahmed judged the bread from this model to be yet another sweetish, bland white loaf which had little to recommend it to the Ahmed family apart from novelty value. Rabaya said: "The bread isn't as tasty as bought loaves, and the process seems too complicated to me. Chapatis don't have yeast in them and I can make them very quickly by hand."


pounds 169.95

In the medium price range, this Panasonic has the standard features of viewing window, delay timer, measuring cup and spoon and the option of making loaves in three sizes. It was deemed the winner in our trial because Clare Bawden turned out consistently successful bread over a period of two weeks which other panellists found comparable with shop- bought loaves. "The first white loaf had a nice, light texture," said Clare, "and this was what encouraged me to be brave and try the 100 per cent organic wholemeal, which was so brilliant, I just couldn't stop making them." Other panellists were impressed not just by the loaf's crumbly texture and good flavour, but also by its shape: the hole created by the kneading arm was small and concealed on the underside of the rectangular loaf. "At last," said my long-suffering colleagues - who tasted all the results of the trial - "bread you can actually feel proud of."


pounds 99

Ranking among the budget machines and capable of making loaves in only one size, the Hinari has a delay timer and measuring cup, but no spoon, which Clare Bawden thought a crucial omission. "It's very important to get the quantities right, and other kitchen spoons vary in size quite a lot," she complained. "The other major drawback is that you have to heat the water yourself to 80C and spend time watching over the initial kneading process to determine whether more water or flour is needed." Clare's first attempt yielded a plain white loaf which was slightly over-proved on top and close textured. Her second attempt proved disastrous. "It didn't rise and was an inedible lump," she reported. "The instructions advise that it might take several attempts to get the right consistency. My inclination was to give up."


The Panasonic is available from John Lewis (or phone for stockists on 0990 357357); LG from John Lewis or British Gas Showrooms; Zojirushi from Jerry's Homestore, Harrods, Selfridges, Lakeland Limited (or call 0181 998 2100); both Morphy Richards and Mellerware from Comet, Currys etc (0345 023262 ). For Hinari, call 0181 787 3111.

! For information about De Gustibus bread-making courses, telephone 01235 555777