Product Focus

The breadmaker, or automatic bread machine, is still somewhat a novelty here in the United States. Overseas it is practically unheard of. But one thing is certain, it has made a commanding introduction to our everyday line of kitchen items and has a generous foothold in appliance markets.

Compared to other products featured in these monthly articles, the automatic bread machine is the new kid on the block. It's barely ten years old but has made a lasting impression. Enough so that it has driven appliance manufacturers along interesting paths. And its interest has sparked new sales and opened up markets that pave the way for sales of other products for the kitchen. In short, the automatic bread machine has been a blessing and a curse for Americans.

The idea is simple enough: find a way to add the basic ingredients for a loaf of bread, stick them in a machine, and -- a few hours later -- pull out a fresh, steaming loaf of bread. It's fun, it's cost effective (for the most part), and the taste is out this world... right? So what's the problem? If you look at the microwave oven, the VCR, and the portable compact disc player, you will notice that new things don't come easily. They take awhile to be accepted by the majority and some time to have every bug and "feature" worked out so that a continual yearly sales volume is met. In other words, they don't start off perfectly and they need to evolve to meet and create needs of the consumer.

And part of this evolution is the exact use of a bread maker. Some manufacturers' machines also churn butter, prepare jam, and the rarest of all - one manufacturer's traditional loaf bread maker can cook a meatloaf! But all that aside, how well do they make bread and dough?

Stepping back for a moment, let us first look at where bread comes from. It seems that every single society had some form of bread or another -- some baked good containing a flour or starch product that incorporated other ingredients for flavouring. The bread of today barely resembles the same bread it evolved from -- European breads.

Loaves of interesting sizes and shapes using grains found most popularly in the region -- wheats and ryes and corn. All husked, milled, processed, and stored for consumption. And bread was the easy way to consume flour products. Bread stored for long periods of time. It could be used a meal by itself or alongside any other food. It could be used as a container for soups, fruits, puddings. And it could be lightened and sweetened for a dessert. Bread is a staple for obvious reasons.

But bread making requires mixing, sifting, kneading, and baking for prolonged hours at a certain heat. It was an arduous task that easily consumed most of the day. As industrialization took over, our everyday kitchen practices were subjected to assembly line work. Our food products were not being made by hand, with love and care, but my machinery. We lost tough with where our food was coming from. And in efforts to keep it affordable, we lost touch with the ingredients and the care placed with proper selection. Conversely, industrialization brought more food to people who could not get food as easily. It -- in some ways -- made use of better ingredients for food safety. In the end, industrialization has had its good points and its bad.

Perhaps when you were growing up, specialty bread was the only bread left that was baked at home. While the rewards were often good, the time it took was immense compared to busy family schedules. It took a generation for the idea to mature, that bread should and could be made at home. But it needed to be made more efficient and fun. American consumerism needed to embrace it as it had making toast, cooking roasts, or buying the world's best invention: sliced bread.

It was HOT. It was NOW. It was sure to bring everyone back to the kitchens... where they belonged. The idea that anyone could make homemade, deli/bakery style bread at home. And with only a few simple ingredients and in only a fraction of time. Heady promises that were not easy to keep.

Success comes at a price. And the consumer was to pay for it. And did we ever. Do you remember the first bread makers on the market? 200$ - 300$!!! And they did make bread. Or was it? Oddly-shaped loafs taking over three hours to cook. Ingredients that had to be added in a specific order. And for what? A loaf that, for a family of four, could be devoured in a day or two. I thought science had come to our rescue.

Manufacturers recognized this. Initial sales were positive and so they ventured to improve upon their short-comings. Over the years, consumers saw larger loafs; machines capable of handling different flours and ingredients for various culturally diverse bread-products. The rise of homemade pizzas began to gather a tad more attention as dough was being churned out by these machines. And loaf shapes, in just the past few years, began looking like store-bought loaves. The last looming factor: cost. Bread makers were still expensive and more of a novelty than a basic kitchen tool.

Enter consumerism-tempering. The role of the store was to sell the product. But little do consumers understand that the stores also help to determine cost. This is a great burden on the manufacturer but that is a separate story altogether. Suffice to say, bread maker prices are at their lowest ever. Basic models spouting off 1.5 pound, vertically shaped loaves go as low as 30$ or 40$ dollars today. The cost is now in the hand of the manufacturers. So, purely for information-value only, I will let you in on a little secret. As we drive consumerism down the path of "more for less" we have set a trend. Goods and services that we use everyday, in order to meet our insatiable demand for value-added cost, have been farmed to other countries. Good, right? Smaller, poorer nations can make whatever we want for cheap, right?

Wrong. It costs the American consumer more than they realize, but it is only realized over longer periods of time. The forcing of foreign products for our consumption has weakened our own infrastructure of business and economic prosperity. In a way, it has driven a wedge between the consumer and the manufacturer by displacing jobs and work. In other words, by not keeping things home, we cutting ourselves short in a very large way.

What does this have to do with bread makers? Only one American-manufacturer of bread makers is left. They compete, daily, with the entire Pacific Rim for the sale of bread machines. Scary, isn't it? Every bread maker sold in the United States, minus one manufacturer's, is made in China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, or surrounding nations. How do they compete? Let me assure you that it is a very, very steep up-hill battle.

Leaving that aside for the moment, we concentrate on our bread needs for the now. With prices dropping everyday, the appeal of making bread at home should be increasing every day. Or so the theory goes. However, there is still one feature that is stopping every American from purchasing a new bread maker. Time. It takes a long time to prepare a loaf of bread.

Not any more. With the advent of quick-rise yeast -- still in it's infancy on the market -- consumers today have a new bread maker. It will bake a pound and a half or two pound loaf in one hour. From start to finish. It requires only that the user correctly measures out the ingredients and uses the proper temperature of water. And in one hour, a hot, steaming loaf of bread is ready to consume.

If you think that this is magic and mysticism, let me first explain how basic bread is made.

You start with two categories of ingredients: wet and dry. They are combined to form the structure of what the bread will eventually be. In betwixt it all, simple organic chemistry and biology.

The first ingredient I will explain is the flour. Depending on the flour used for the bread desired, the gluten in the flour will be used as the bonds that create the internal matrix of the final product. The gluten acts as a mechanical fastener for the bread's structure. The beginning of the structure is created when the dry ingredients are mixed with the wet. Together they form a viscous base for flavors and additives. In this base, our biology and chemistry begin.

The act of kneading bread is purely mechanical; used to produce the matrix. The sugar and yeast, as well as other dry ingredients are used to produce the chemical reaction needed to rise and leaven the dough, as needed. Yeast is a biological entity that is alive before used in the bread making process. As with any living organism, it needs to feed. And sugar is its food. Now, sugar comes from starches. And starches hold mechanical as well as chemical value. But starches are not the food that the yeast need to reproduce and be useful for baking. Instead, we add sugar. And as they feed, they grow. As they grow, they divide. And then they give off something. Whenever energy is spent on reproduction, there must be a resultant product of that energy to balance the goings on. And the bi-product in question, is carbon-dioxide gas. Harmless and inert gas.

This is where things become critical. The gluten, as I mentioned, is a fastener. It binds elements and starches together. The gas produced by the yeast needs to escape. However, it becomes trapped inside pockets in the matrix. The result is what we call "rising" of the bread. But this is not purely organic and mechanical. I did mention chemical. And that is why a certain level of heat is needed to get the yeast active and start producing the carbon-dioxide gas. However, too much heat will kill the yeast; they are sensitive little creatures. Too little heat does absolutely nothing for the bread, and you're left with a dry, flat loaf that tastes like yeast.

Let's return to our brand new product: the one-hour bread machine. How exactly does it work, if the rising process takes a particular amount of time? Through patented technologies, one company (the last of the American bread machine manufacturers) has been able to play with loaf shape, activation temperature per ingredient, and total reactivity of the organics, to speed up the time for both rising and baking. The results are familiar to that of common European breads. This is the machine of the future. (If you're curious, it's the West Bend model # 41053!)

In conclusion, the staple technology bread making of the past has lent itself to industrialization. To come full-circle, today we are trying to move our interests in what we are eating back to the kitchen. The results are a large variety of automatic bread machines capable of producing an even wider variety of bread styles and recipes. To make things easier, and to meet the demands of the typical American consumer, one manufacturer has been able to make this all possible in the shortest time possible. We have at our fingertips, the means for healthier living through healthier foods... made right here in our own kitchens. And still at an affordable cost. Bon a’ petit!

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