Choosing a Bread Maker
Home-baked bread is more than just delicious; it's also frugal and healthy. The price of a high-quality store-bought loaf easily tops $4, but you can take the DIY approach for about $1 and avoid ingesting the refined flours, sugars, and preservatives that show up in the commercial product. What keeps many a home cook from baking bread, however, is the time-consuming and arm-wearying process and the fear of yeast failure. Cue cheap bread makers. Cheapism.com sifted through expert and consumer reviews of these nifty countertop appliances and found several models that provide all the benefits of fresh-baked loaves without the hassle and anxiety -- for $100 or less.
Bread Maker Brands.The usual array of consumer brands, including Sunbeam, Panasonic, Oster, Hamilton Beach, and West End, dominate the budget zone. Breadman, a corporate cousin of Black & Decker, makes an appearance in this segment, as does Cuisinart. Lesser-known labels, such as Kuissential and Rosewill, round out the entry-level offerings. Many of these manufacturers also offer upscale models alongside the likes of T-Fal, Breville, and Zojirushi. The latter earns particular accolades from expert and consumer reviewers for features, performance, and durability.
Expensive vs. Cheap Bread Makers.Prices in this product category run the gamut from a low of about $40 to a high of about $400. Cost aside, all bread machines function pretty much the same way: Add ingredients and push a few buttons, and the machine does the rest. Paying for a high-end bread maker buys a finished loaf with superior crust and texture, the ability to customize steps throughout the process, and better build quality.
Based on the reviews we read, however, frugal consumers are hearty defenders of entry-level models, often contending that inexpensive bread machines can hold their own in any bread-making matchup. And folks who follow a gluten-free diet revel in the opportunity to turn out satisfying loaves without forking over too much "dough."
The best cheap bread makers, according to our research, are the Cuisinart CBK-100 (starting around $100), for its versatility and top-quality loaves; the Sunbeam 5891 (starting around $69), for its dependability and overall value; and the Panasonic SD-YD250 (starting around $95, although often closer to $125), for its delectable output and extra-large loaf option.
Three other good bread machines under $100: the Hamilton Beach HomeBaker 29882 (starting around $50), for strong performance coupled with a bargain price; the Kuissential BMC-001 (starting around $80), for value, features, and results; and the Oster Expressbake CKSTBRTW20 (starting around $60), which is now near the end of its run with a proven track record as its legacy. Stretching the budget just a bit, the Cuisinart CBK-200 (starting around $112) features more settings than the CBK-100 and convection heat for an even, golden crust.
One cheap bread machine we researched, the Breadman BK1050S (starting around $84), comes with features such as a collapsible kneading paddle, which eliminates the hole in the bottom of a baked loaf, but is tarred by performance snafus.
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Features Comparison Buying Guide continues below table
Bread Machine Reviews: What We Considered
Our picks are based on data gathered from reviews posted by experts and consumers, and from manufacturers' product specifications. Research sources include Wirecutter, TopTenReviews, and Better Homes & Gardens, which test products, as well as Amazon, Walmart, Home Depot, Best Buy, Target, Newegg, and Bed Bath & Beyond, which host reviews written by people who use these machines in their own kitchens.
Bottom line: Bread maker reviews roundly declare the models on our list quite satisfactory. Reviewers say they enjoy the process and the finished product, so much so that many have deleted commercially baked bread from their weekly shopping lists. They consider these machines user-friendly, easy to clean, and reliable, and they like the array of features. Although we came across reviews that report problems -- e.g., dough doesn't rise, loaves are tough or misshapen, nonstick coating peels, components give out after minimal use -- the vast majority crow about the good value and good eating that our preferred choices provide.
Overall Performance.Reviews often use words such as "delicious," "yummy," "flavorful," and "heavenly" to describe the baked goodies and accompanying aromas from the bread makers we picked. Many consumers say they use their machines at least once a week, mostly for bread but also for pizza dough, rolls, quick breads, and the like. Most often they seem to rely on the included manual/recipe book as a guide and stress the importance of following the instructions to a T. Other reviews allow that some experimentation with the rising agent (active dry yeast vs. bread machine yeast), the flour, the proportions, and the crust settings may be necessary.
Settings.The bread makers on our list are more than one-trick ponies. They can bake a range of bread types -- basic, French, wheat, multigrain, quick, and sweet are common -- and also turn out dough for shaping and a spin in the oven. Some add jams, sauces, and cakes to the mix. The number of preprogrammed settings depends on the model. Standard settings include an express cycle, which hastens a process that can take more than three hours, and multiple options for crust shade (light, medium, dark) and loaf size (1.5 and 2 pounds are most common; some offer a 1- or 2.5-pound option). We also looked for bread machines with a delay-start timer, a welcome setting that lets users add the ingredients and set the machine to turn on later (usually up to 13 hours). An increasing number of cheap bread machines come with a special gluten-free option. The T-Fal ActiBread Gluten Free PF311E (starting around $113) goes even further, with three settings for gluten-free bread and cake.
Ease of Use.The best bread makers are a breeze to use. Just add the ingredients in the order specified, choose the appropriate setting, and walk away until the bread is done. (Still, it's a good idea to check in while the dough is mixing -- scraping down the sides is sometimes necessary. Most models have a viewing window.) Some machines offer an audible reminder to add fruit or nuts mid-cycle, and some dispense mix-ins automatically.
Cleanup is a relatively quick affair with our favorite bread machines. Several models we researched come with nonstick loaf pans and paddles, although we read a number of reports about struggling to remove baked loaves and residue left on the sides. The pan and paddle on a couple of models are dishwasher safe.
One minor irritant common among even the best bread makers -- at least in this price range -- is that the paddle remains in the loaf through the baking cycle. Numerous reviews decry the need to dig it out and the unsightly gash that mars an otherwise flawless slice of bread. (Tip: Grease the paddle with a spot of oil or cooking spray before starting.) Some models do come with a hook that helps remove the paddle. Some reviewers say they open the machine and pull out the paddle part way through the proofing, but read the instructions closely to be sure this will work; some users report that the dough deflates if the paddle is pulled out. Rare in the budget range is the model that short-circuits the paddle dilemma with an alert to dislodge it from the dough before the last rise.
Dimensions.One thing these small appliances are not is small. Whether square or rectangular -- or, in bread maker parlance, vertical or horizontal -- the best bread makers take up lots of space on the counter. Some are as long as 19 inches and as deep as 14 inches and weigh more than 20 pounds. For a more compact machine, look to the more expensive but highly rated Zojirushi Mini BB-HAC10 (starting at $177), which measures just 11.25 by 8.5 by 12.25 inches.
One frequent complaint about bread machines with vertical loaf pans: The odd-shaped slices often don't fit in a toaster. Choose a model that makes horizontal loaves for bread shaped like a loaf you would buy at a supermarket.