We tested 9 popular bread machines – these are the 3 best ones you can buy in 2021

Table of Contents: Masthead Sticky

  • A bread machine is a valuable kitchen tool if you enjoy making bread at home.
  • Most bread makers require quick prep work and take about three to four hours to make the bread.
  • We tested nine machines, and the Zojirushi Virtuoso Plus is our top pick.

While I like the concept of making bread entirely from scratch, the lag time is significant between realizing that warm carbs are what’s missing in my life and actually holding a freshly-baked brioche. Many recipes involving yeast require kneading, refrigerating, or babysitting, making spur-of-the-moment bread out of the question. That is, unless, you have a bread machine.

Most bread machines require about 10 minutes of prep time, which is mostly spent measuring ingredients and putting them into a pan. After that’s done, you pick a setting, turn on the machine, and three or four hours later you (ideally) have a warm, golden-brown loaf. But with so many bread machines on the market, how do you choose the right one?

“At a minimum, I’d want a machine with a standard cycle, a whole grain or whole wheat cycle (if you enjoy whole-grain bread) and a dough cycle, which simply mixes and kneads the dough, then keeps it warm as it rises,” said P.J. Hamel, senior digital content editor for King Arthur Flour and author of the James Beard Award-winning cookbook “The King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion.” “After that, you can make pizza crust, cinnamon buns, or any number of yummy treats.”

That’s why I put each bread machine in this guide through a series of tests to see how they handled basic white bread, wheat bread with mix-ins (in this case, sunflower seeds and flax seeds), and gluten-free bread. I also assessed the ease of use, setting options, baking times, noise levels, and special features like pre-programming. You can read a more in-depth explanation of my testing methods here, and a few tips for getting the most out of your bread machine here.

The 3 best bread machines of 2021

Our testing methodology

The inside of a bread machine, showing the basket for dough.

Before I began testing, I spoke to Marsha Perry, the writer behind the popular Bread Machine Diva blog, and P.J. Hamel, senior digital content editor for King Arthur Flour and author of the James Beard Award-winning cookbook “The King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion.” Both have decades of experience testing and adapting bread machine recipes and providing their respective readers with bread machine tips. 

On their recommendation, I followed the recipes featured in each bread machine’s guidebook, since they’re calibrated to accommodate unique temperatures, mixing speeds, proofing techniques, and baking times. In future testing rounds, I plan to see how each machine fares using a universal bread machine recipe. I baked, at most, two loaves of bread per day in each machine, waiting several hours between baking sessions to allow the breadmakers to cool completely.

Here are the criteria I looked for during each test:

Bread quality: A bread machine has one job — to make good bread. I tested how each one handled basic white bread, wheat bread with mix-ins (in this case, a combination of sunflower seeds and flax seeds, to see how the machines dispersed mix-ins of different sizes), and, for the machines with a gluten-free setting, gluten-free bread. I used the same ingredients throughout testing, all of which are basic items you’d find at any grocery store.

I dialed the crust setting to “Medium” on each breadmaker. White bread was baked on the “White” setting (sometimes labeled as “Basic,” depending on the machine), wheat bread was baked on the “Whole Wheat” setting, and gluten-free bread was baked on the “Gluten-Free” setting.

Each loaf of bread was then examined for consistency of texture, a golden color throughout, and an even rise; points were docked if the domed top fell. I cut several slices of bread from each loaf to look for air pockets and under or over-baked spots. 

Size: Most bread machines take up a lot of counter space, so while it wasn’t a deciding factor, extra consideration was given to more compact options.

Capacity: While every bread machine I tested — aside from the Zojirushi Maestro — was built with a two-pound loaf in mind (aka the size you’d find in a grocery store), I made note of the models that had the ability to bake loaves in three or four different sizes; one pound was the smallest I saw, and 2.5 pounds was the largest. 

Noise: Extra noisy machines were dinged, as were ones that “hopped” across the counter during the kneading cycle. The top three picks above all operated at a low hum, and were, as far as I could tell, motionless.

Unique features: I noted setting options (some machines had special cycles for things like jam, yogurt, and pasta dough), especially fast baking times, and special features like pre-programming or auto-dispensers for mix-ins. 

The best bread machine overall

Zojirushi bread maker, with a black top and stainless steel body.

This bread machine kneads thoroughly, bakes evenly, and, unlike many of its competitors, turns out standard-sized loaves. 

Pros: Produces standard-sized loaves that rise evenly and are a consistent color, a wide variety of settings, ability to customize your own settings, pre-programmable, 1-year warranty

Cons: Expensive, takes up a lot of counter space

The Zojirushi Virtuoso Plus is my top pick for home bakers, thanks to its stellar reliability and variety of settings. After putting nine different machines through three rounds of tests (or two, for machines without gluten-free settings), I found that this was the only one to turn out perfectly domed, uniformly browned, and consistently fluffy bread with evenly distributed mix-ins every time. To check for consistency, I made two more loaves of white bread after those initial tests, and both were slam dunks. 

It was also one of the few bread machines to pass the gluten-free test with flying colors, producing bread that was similar in color, size, and texture to your standard white loaf. For her own experiment, the Bread Machine Diva blog’s Marsha Perry — who name-checked the Virtuoso Plus when I asked her for a bread machine recommendation — made one gluten-free loaf using the “Gluten-Free” setting and another using its regular “White” setting, and said the first loaf was markedly better. 

The Virtuoso Plus’ custom bread cycles feature is especially helpful for those who have moved beyond the machine’s guidebook recipes. Interestingly, Hamel of King Arthur Flour uses her Zojirushi’s “Jam” cycle to make risotto — a technique that I’m curious to try.

The Virtuoso Plus can be pre-programmed (a feature that worked perfectly and allowed me to wake up to the smell of fresh bread during testing), and the machine’s 5-minute power backup means you won’t automatically lose your bread-in-progress if the power flickers, as Hamel noted.

The Virtuoso Plus also stops kneading when you open the lid, which is useful if you want to add mix-ins to your bread. And if you need to measure those mix-ins, the machine comes with four nested measuring cups, one liquid measuring cup, and a double-ended measuring spoon — add-ons that are unnecessary, but appreciated. 

This machine makes two-pound 9-by-5 loaves that are, as I mentioned, about the size and shape of sandwich bread you’d find at the grocery store. Timing-wise, the white and wheat loaves of bread took about 3.5 hours to bake, while the gluten-free loaf was done in 2.5 hours. The clock displays the time your bread will be done, rather than the hours left, which I found helpful when planning my day. 

I’ve been using this model at least twice a month in the four months since my initial testing, and find that it still runs smoothly, with no discernable changes in quality of bread, reliability of programming, or noise levels. 

All of this being said, the Zojirushi is on the expensive side, so if you’re just trying out bread-making before you fully commit to the hobby, I’d recommend our budget pick. It’s also probably not the best choice if you have limited counter space, as the other machines in this guide are more compact.

The best bread machine on a budget

Oster bread machine, an all white body with curved edges.

The Oster Expressbake is a solid starter machine that mixes, kneads, and bakes evenly, and with 13 settings, it’s notably more versatile than competitors within its price range. 

Pros: produces bread with an even rise, makes three loaf sizes, affordable, compact, fast baking time, variety of settings, window, pre-programmable, 1-year warranty

Cons: Somewhat noisy, loaf size isn’t quite standard, slightly thicker crusts than our top pick

The Oster Express Bake‘s name refers to the fact that it can turn out a two-pound loaf of bread in less than an hour on its Express Bake setting (our top pick‘s “Rapid” cycle takes about 2.5 hours). While the results are certainly better than your standard grocery store loaf, I found that bread baked on this machine’s namesake setting turned out denser and shorter than loaves made on its Basic cycle (a near-universal bread machine problem, according to experts we spoke to). 

But most people don’t choose a bread machine based on its ability to bake two loaves of bread in the time it takes to watch an episode of “The Bachelorette,” and Express Bake results aside, the Oster’s white, wheat, and gluten-free loaves of bread were the best — golden brown and evenly risen with a fine crumb, a smooth, domed top, and evenly distributed mix-ins — out of the five machines in its price bracket that we tested. The only flaws that placed its loaves under the Zojirushi’s in testing were their unconventional shape (shorter in length and taller in height, with bread slices whose tops stick out slightly from your average toaster) and thicker crusts.

The Oster was also a bit more finicky in terms of exact measurements; when I relied on measuring cups instead of a kitchen scale, my loaves turned out flatter on top — a problem I didn’t have with our top pick. And while this machine’s gluten-free bread was solid, it was a bit less soft than the Zojirushi’s. 

I also tested the Express Bake’s predecessor and found that loaves baked in the original turned out slightly darker on the sides and paler on top. The brand swapped the Express Bake’s Bagel Dough setting for Pasta, which isn’t necessarily an improvement but does seem more practical, given the complicated process of making bagels from scratch.

Like the Zojirushi Virtuoso Plus, the Oster Express Bake comes with a liquid measuring cup and a double-sided measuring spoon (but no set of nested dry measuring cups). It’s less bulky than our top pick, although perhaps not ideal if kitchen space is tight (if compactness is a priority, check out the Zojirushi Maestro, below). It can be pre-programmed and will beep instantly after finishing its bread cycle before switching to the warm mode for 60 minutes, then beeping again and automatically shutting off.

The best compact bread machine

Zojirushi Maestro, a tall and narrow white body with a loaf next to it.

The Zojirushi Maestro is specifically calibrated to bake excellent one-pound loaves of bread, making it a solid choice for one or two-person households. 

Pros: Produces an even bake, perfect for small households, variety of settings, ability to customize cycles, pre-programmable, compact, 1-year warranty

Cons: Loaves are oddly-shaped, bread can be difficult to remove from pan

Since I’m typically baking for one or two people, most standard two-pound loaves of bread go stale before I can finish them. (In other words, I’ve made a lot of croutons lately.) Typically, bread machines offer 1.5-pound loaves as their smallest option, and those that do begin at one pound aren’t necessarily calibrated to excel at loaves that small. When I tried making a one-pound loaf in Cuisinart’s Compact Automatic Breadmaker, for example, the results were dense, with a thicker crust than I would have liked. 

Zojirushi’s Maestro, however, is designed with small households in mind, and during my tests, it consistently turned out solid one-pound loaves that ticked every box on my bread checklist: golden-brown color, domed top, fine crumb, evenly risen, and evenly-distributed mix-ins. That being said, the Maestro’s pan is aligned vertically, meaning its loaves are oddly-shaped — even cube-like – and the bread is a bit more difficult to pry from inside. 

I appreciate the fact that Zojirushi didn’t scale down its flagship breadmaker’s features just to make smaller loaves; the Maestro can be pre-programmed in advance and includes a 5-minute power backup (as mentioned in our Virtuoso review, this can really save your loaf in the event your power flickers). 

The Maestro’s narrow dimensions make it easy to store in my tiny Brooklyn kitchen. It’s also the only bread machine I tested that features a convenient top handle, making it easy to transport. Its interior top handle, however, isn’t as solidly constructed; I yanked it off the first time I pulled the pan from the machine (although it popped back in easily).

What else we tested

Three bread machines with stainless steel bodies that we tested next to each other on the counter.

What else we recommend and why

Breville Custom Loaf ($299.95): This was a close second to the Zojirushi, but my first attempt at white bread came out slightly darker at the sides than on top, and the gluten-free bread wasn’t quite as fluffy as our top pick’s. The Breville Custom Loaf has 13 automatic settings, nine customizable settings, and two features we didn’t find in any other machine: a paddle that collapses after kneading, so there’s no paddle-sized hole when you pull the baked bread from the pan; and a fruit and nut dispenser that will automatically add any mix-ins at the appropriate time in the bread cycle. I’d recommend this machine for confident bakers who are interested in programming their own bread cycles to match go-to recipes.

Cru X GG Bred ($169.95): A collaboration between Cru and Ghetto Gastro, a collective of chefs who use food to empower communities and advance social justice, the Bred was definitely the boldest, sleekest, and most compact out of all the machines we tested. And, with 15 settings, it was also one of the most versatile. Since the bread it produced was on par with the significantly cheaper Oster Express Bake, it didn’t make the cut, but perhaps you’re willing to pay a little extra for an appliance that’s attractive enough to leave out on the counter.

What we don’t recommend and why

Oster Express Bake (older model, $68): While the previous iteration of the Oster Express Bake is still available online, we found that the newer version performs better in terms of producing evenly-baked bread. And, importantly, the latest Express Bake includes a gluten-free setting – a feature commenters on retail sites had been asking for. 

Cuisinart Convection Breadmaker ($154.95): With 16 settings, this is one of the most versatile machines I tested. However, while my white and wheat loaves were top-notch, both of my attempts at gluten-free bread resulted in collapsed domes. 

Cuisinart Compact Automatic Breadmaker ($129.95): Again, my gluten-free bread didn’t rise as I had hoped, and the machine’s white and wheat loaves of bread weren’t quite as professional-looking as those from the latest version of the Oster Express Bake. 

Hamilton Beach Artisan Dough and Bread Maker ($75.32): The white and wheat loafs came out slightly underbaked in the middle, while the gluten-free bread was denser compared to the ones our top three picks made.

Getting the most out of your bread machine

best bread machine

Don’t throw out the manual

Most breadmakers come with a few recipes, and they’re often tucked away in the back of a guidebook. These are crucial since they’re calibrated to work well with that particular machine’s features and specifications. “Once you’ve made some of those and understand how the machine works — how much flour it can handle, how long each rise cycle and bake cycle are — you can start to adapt any of your own favorite yeast bread recipes to bake in the machine,” P.J. Hamel, senior digital content editor for King Arthur Flour, said. 

Have fun with the dough cycle

By taking care of the mixing and kneading, it allows you to start a little closer to the finish line if you’re making other yeast-based baked goods. The Bread Machine Diva’s Marsha Perry recommends it for pizzas and dinner rolls.

Experiment with settings

But master the basics first. “If your machine is programmable — that is, you can program in your own mixing kneading, rising, and baking times — you’re golden,” Hamel said. “Your machine is then simply a mini oven, ready to bake macaroni and cheese, apple crisp, bread pudding, cheesecake — even soup, stew, or lasagna! Once you get to know your machine, and if it has that ‘homemade menu’ capability — it becomes so much more than a machine that bakes bread.”

Use good ingredients

“Cheap ingredients yield a crummy (rather than crumb-y) final product. Flour and yeast quality are super-important,” said Hamel. “You don’t have to use bread flour in your bread machine, so long as you use flour with a protein content higher than 11.5% or so.” All of my bread were made with King Arthur bread flour and gluten-free flour (both of which I purchased before reaching out to PJ) and Whole Foods 365 whole wheat flour.

Invest in a kitchen scale

Bread machine baking is all about precision, and measuring your ingredients by weight will clear up any confusion as to whether or not that tightly-packed cup of flour is more like a cup and a half.

FAQs

Is bread from a bread machine different from oven-baked bread?

Yes. In terms of appearance, most loaves made in a bread machine will have a hole in the bottom where the mixing paddle was. Taste-wise, bread machine bread is pretty universally light and fluffy. 

“You won’t be making crusty artisan bread in your bread machine (though you can certainly make the dough for them on the machine’s dough cycle),” Hamel said. “Bread machine bread may taste a bit yeasty, but beyond that, it’s up to you to add flavor with spices, herbs, dried fruit, and nuts. Most bread machines won’t deliver loaves with the rich, nuanced flavor of an artisan loaf, since that flavor comes from a series of long rises, some of which may be in the refrigerator. Bread machines simply don’t have that capability.”

How long does homemade bread last? 

If kept at room temperature, homemade bread will be noticeably stale by day three. If you’re pretty sure you’re not going to finish an entire loaf in that amount of time, you can always wrap a portion tightly in plastic wrap and put it in the freezer. 

How do I store homemade bread? 

If you’re storing homemade bread for a day or two, plastic or foil will help lock in moisture. Since direct sunlight can cause bread to overheat, it’s best stored in a cool, dry place like a bread box or cupboard. 

Any tips for keeping homemade bread fresh?

There is one slicing technique that can help extend the life of your bread. As Hamel wrote on the King Arthur blog, “If you start slicing at one end, you’ll always be dealing with an open-end ‘leaking’ moisture. But if you slice the loaf in half down the middle, cut a slice from one of the halves, then press the two halves back together before wrapping, no open surface will be exposed — which means less chance of moisture evaporating.”

Check out our other great guides for home cooks

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Read the original article on Business Insider