The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Am I ready to take the plunge? Expert advice needed.

AmyDS's picture

Am I ready to take the plunge? Expert advice needed.


I am a total newbie wanting to try her hand a making bread.

I want to ask Santa for a Zo for Christmas, but I'm a little skeptical about what he'll say. You see, my Santa is from France, and so of course he has a high standard for bread. I know he will say: "You will never be able to make a really good loaf with a machine." My Santa is a pretty proud Frenchman and a purist. His brother is a baker! Where we live in Montreal we can buy some pretty good bread, but I would love it if we could make our own. I read in this forum about buying the book: Rustic European Breads from your bread machine, which sounds great. But I would love to know the opinions of all you bread folks out there. Can I get a really good loaf (nice and crusty, for example) - something that would satisy even the pickiest of Frenchman - with the Zo?

(FYI, I bought a self-freezing ice cream machine this summer, against Santa's advice, and am able to effortlessly make THE most delicious ice cream!)

I thank you all in advance for any advice you can provide.


bmoo's picture

I'm not familiar with the book you reference and am certainly NO expert.  Based on my *limited* use of my bread machine and the loaves friends of mine make in theirs, I don't think you can get crusty loaves from a bread machine.  You can use the machine to make the dough but you have to bake it in the oven with steam to get the wonderful kind of crust that I think you're after.

Instead, I think you might want to try taking a different plunge and try making bread by hand.  It's not nearly as difficult as many people think. 

You can start pretty simply.  Take a look at this recipe:

The recipe is based on the Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day book.  I think you'll be amazed both at how good the bread is and at how easy it is to make.  Once you've mastered that recipe this site is a great resource for expanding your bread-making horizons.

 FWIW, I have both a bread machine and a self-freezing ice cream machine too.  The ice cream machine gets a workout -- we make great sorbets that dazzle our guests!  But, the bread machine just sits and gathers dust.  I'd definitely try making bread by hand before spending the money on the machine. 


LLM777's picture

I feel like it's true confessions...

But, no, the bread machine, no matter how good, can replace making a loaf by hand. I used a bread machine for over 15 years and just this last year actually ventured to the world of making bread by hand with the help of this site. It was a transition because I had still used my machine for kneading and then I'd bake it in the oven. I even have a post here on TFL on improving bread machine bread but now I would not go back.

I've been quite some months making bread by hand (after I wore out my second machine) and I don't see how your husband can be happy with the results of the bread machine. Even the ability to get the right sized holes is limited due to the type of kneading the machine does even if you bake it in the oven.

Definitely go for baking by hand first with a stand mixer (you may already have that) or the way recommended above. It may just take a little longer but there are methods in the books recommended on this site to help with that.

I would ask for a couple of bread making books for Christmas instead-it'll save a lot of money.

Happy contemplating!


weekend_baker's picture

I too am considering getting a bread machine for Christmas, not so much for the baking as for the preparation.  LLM777--could you explain about the holes?  Do you mean the crumb structure?  I like a quite fine, tight crumb myself and I would think a bread machine would be good at that. 

I had heard that the kneading was better than by mixer--and the thought of being able to mix a sponge, set the timer, and let the machine do the waiting, adding of more flour, kneading, second rise... it seemed like a great labour-saving idea, even though I was planning to get the dough out to shape, and proof and bake by hand.

I don't have a stand mixer, and can't think what else I would use one for--a small whisk/chopper/barmix is plenty for all my other cooking (as well as being the right size for my small kitchen, and nice and light which is good for people with weak joints!)

Anyway--I'd be really interested to hear your experiences--and what kind of bread you used to make in a bread machine, and what you're making now!  Thanks!

LindyD's picture

Welcome to TFL, Amy.

I figure that if bread machines could turn out a great, crusty loaf of bread with an extraordinary taste and crumb, then all the baker's apprentices would be fired, the ovens allowed to go cold, and all the proofers, bowls, and mixers would be replaced by wooden tables holding bread machines which beep and hum while the baker sits in a rocking chair, reading a book.

Floyd has presented his 2009 Book Guide which offers some possibilities to consider. 

Perhaps you could print it and leave it in a conspicuous spot?

tabasco's picture

Amy,  I'm no expert at bread making for sure, but if the only way you will get started making bread is with a bread machine, then I say by all means get one.  And FYI, I noticed King Arthur has the Zoj on sale for 20% off and free shipping right now (for a short time.)

I use ours to bake bread while we are away during the day and I use it to mix dough and then manually shape it into fancy shapes, cinnamon buns, and braided breads and bake off in our ovens.  Lots of fun for me and our kids.

Good luck. 

Janknitz's picture

As a rank beginnger, you might find it challenging to start making bread from scratch on your own, unless you've observed someone else make bread or you have a mentor.

The biggest challenge, IMHO, is learning what dough should feel like.  When you finally get it, it's like learning to read.  You can take off from there and learn to make any bread.  But if you don't know what dough should feel like, you are going to do a lot of stumbling along the way first.  I just couldn't make a decent loaf until I learned what properly kneaded dough felt like. 

My Kitchen Aid mixer taught me what dough should feel like (along with very clear directions in the manual that came with it).  If you've never made your own bread and have no mentor to teach you, a machine like a bread machine may do the job.  (With a bread machine, it's pretty simple--when the dough cleans off the sides of the mixing bucket, the dough is at the correct consistency).  Soon you will understand what that should feel like for a standard loaf of bread, and you can take off from there.  (Not all dough feels the same when properly developed, but you will learn that as you go aong). 

You and your "santa" probably won't be satisfied with bread baked in the machine, but you CAN make the dough in the machine and shape it and bake it in the oven with very satisfactory results. 

So I wouldn't spend all that money on a Zo.  I'd ask for a less expensive machine, anything with a decent dough cycle will do.  Play with it and learn how to make dough.  When you get really good, you won't need the machine any more, and you can feel less guilty about letting a $60 or $70 machine gather dust (or end up donated to a charity) than a $200 Zo. 

LLM777's picture

Hi Weekend Baker- With my bread machine, I did all sorts of bread using many bread books and then I got into more whole grain bread and found in all my baking that the bread just wasn't turning out the way I wanted, like artisan bread. The sides were always too dark and there was that hole in the middle.

I did use Rustic European Bread for bread machine and loved it at the time. Then after a couple of months and more reading from this site, I really wanted bigger holes in the crumb. Yes, the bread machine does make a tight crumb but that's not what I wanted, not what I had seen in bread making books.

And I guess that's the way I thought her husband would feel about the bread machine bread. I took more into account her husband's tastes because if he's not happy, she won't make the bread more than likely.

Now I use PR's Whole Grain Bread (which I love!) and am starting to experiment with Healthy Breads in 5 Minutes. But...

I think y'all have the greatest idea of all. Because looking back, I definitely got started with a bread machine, I wouldn't have even dreamed of making bread by hand at that time so buying a less expensive machine and using that for the time to learn is a great idea.

Hats off to you. :)

sphealey's picture

=== But I would love to know the opinions of all you bread folks out there. Can I get a really good loaf (nice and crusty, for example) - something that would satisy even the pickiest of Frenchman - with the Zo? ===

If you let the receipe go through to completion, including baking, in the Zo then it will be a soft bread with a tight crumb and soft crust - no doubt.  Although it can still taste good; my family likes soft bread for sandwiches and we do 1-2 loaves/week that way.

However, a really good way to get started is to use the Zo to make the dough on the Dough cycle, then take it out and do the rest by hand:  stretch and fold, second rise, shape, and bake in the oven.  That takes the fear away from making the dough and lets you get started right away with baking good crusty loaves in your oven.

Then when you have more experience with the downstream steps you can try mixing, kneading, and primary fermentation by hand too.

As I said it is a good way to get started; ignore all purists who think everyone should use the "deep end, sink-or-swim" method ;-)


diamonds088's picture

Hi Amy,

Regards from Montreal, also. We have just made our first 3 baguettes this past week-end and sorry to say but, no machine except for the Kitchen Aid stand mixer.

My wife Anna used about 90% bread flour and the rest rye flour. Great flavor and consistency. Only thing we have to work on is the crust. It was a bit softer than a great crust. Ever try M.Pinchot or Le Fromentier. Amazing breads. Anyways, good luck with your bread adventure. It was fun and worth doing if a bit long.


weekend_baker's picture

Thanks so much for all of this! So what I'm getting is the idea that thought the bread machine might be a good way of easing yourself from shopbought, anyone who's gone over to artisan breads is never going to be satisfied with the dough it turns out...

I cook all the bread we eat in our house.  I've been baking sourdough for three or so years, and my own yeast breads forever, all by hand.  But I recently started a new job that often means I only get home after dinner, and I was getting tired of being up till after midnight waiting for the bread to cook!  Plus I've been having some wrist/shoulder trouble, and stretch and fold is great if you have a couple of hours to putter around the kitchen, which I don't always--so I'm in a different place from AmyDS.

AmyDS--if you're looking for good bread from a French Baker--have you tried Richard Bertinet (Crust and Dough)?  He has really detailed pictures, absolutely step by step, and even more usefully a DVD in his books.  I didn't have a mentor (I learned to bake bread from my mother, who never did anything more exciting than white dinner rolls)--but he's really good at giving you a 'feel' for this new kind of bread.  It's aimed at a beginner, but quickly goes further once you get the bug!


sphealey's picture

=== Thanks so much for all of this! So what I'm getting is the idea that thought the bread machine might be a good way of easing yourself from shopbought, anyone who's gone over to artisan breads is never going to be satisfied with the dough it turns out... ===

Not sure I would quite agree with that.  You can get some fine doughs from the bread machine, and with a stretch-and-fold and 2nd rise in the refrigerator they will even have a reasonably open crumb (although not the extreme open crumb of a high hydration dough).  I make Rose Levy's Jewish Rye that way for 6 months and it was excellent. 

Other than for soft sandwich bread (and there is nothing wrong with that), you won't be satisfied with breads you bake out in the machine.  But baking out is the easiest part of breakmaking.


sourdough greg's picture
sourdough greg

First, I own and really like the book Rustic European Bread. Having said that, I long ago switched to using the machine for kneading, and making all of the breads in the oven. It was a really positive way to make that change like that, and then get a feel for shaping, slashing, etc. to individualize the loaves more. Little did I ever think that I would eventually be one of those people with a bread machine in the basement, and making my doughs by hand. 

Baking in the oven is the only way to go to get the breads you're looking for, and I agree with the "start with the machine" idea above, and then wean yourself as you get comfortable with the oven baking. 

Good luck!

Royall Clark's picture
Royall Clark

I started baking bread just about 3 months ago. I didn't know the first thing about bread baking and came across a recipe that took it step by step and I gave it ago. I was hooked! I didn't know what the dough was supposed to look or feel like but with the help of the people on this site, Youtube, and a few other spots on the internet, I've been baking some mighty fine tasting breads! You get the feeling that your doing something right when you get invited to dinner as long as I bring some bread! I haven't bought any bread, pastries, or buns sense I started baking my own. For the cost of a decent bread machine you can have nice stand mixer that will serve you better. If this old man can teach himself to bake, so can you!! Make the Frenchman proud Amy!!

wayne on FLUKE's picture
wayne on FLUKE

I started out making bread in a bread machine (with store bought mixes) because when we are on our boat in the Bahamas it is always difficult to get bread away from the main islands (and we eat a lot of it)

It didn't take too long to become dissatisfied with the bread made in the machine even though it is OK. Not a lot of variety and the hole and shape weren't the best.

So like many, I tried the dough cycle for a while, but now I don't even bring the machine with us. I am just learning how to deal with wetter doughs. Results are much better when I don't add a lot of extra flour to make kneading easier.

My advice.

If you want a machine for the dough cycle only, just by a cheap (or used) one. I bet there are a lot at garage sales.

The stand mixer would seem to be a lot more versatile, but I never used one.

As someone said, there is so much help available online. Videos really helped me a lot and can give you a pretty good idea what the dough should look like at various points, but you got to get your hands in the dough to feel it. (And it is a lot of fun!)


AmyDS's picture

WOW! Thank you all so much for all this great advice! You guys are really a swell community!

I actually have a mixer already that came with a dough hook attachment (I use is for meatloaf!). So what would the difference be (assuming I would bake the bread in the oven either way) if I prepared the dough with my mixer vs having a bread machine prepare it?



abdosoliman's picture

I used bread machines for long time. Now I use them for preparing the ferment /biaga over night and doing the first mixing and kneading.  For this perpose, cheap or used bread-machines from thrift stores are perfectly adequate.

Janknitz's picture

The mixer with a dough hook should do just fine, but if you want some additional flexibility, the bread machine will supply it. 

The bread machine allows you to load the ingredients, set a timer, and the dough will be ready for oven baking when you are.  You could set it at night so you can bake fresh bread for your breakfast or lunch.  You can have dough ready when you come home from work, so you can bake a fresh loaf before dinner or after. 

There is less time involved with a bread machine, just load the ingredients and press the button.  A mixer takes a little more attention and "babysitting".  BUT, you will learn more about how to make dough and learn to "read" your dough better with a mixer. 

Some authorities claim that the bread machine does the best job of making dough because it is closer to real kneading and treats the dough much more gently than a dough hook.  You can even use the machine to make very highly hyrdated doughs that would not work so well in a mixer (as long as you don't attempt to bake them in the machine). 

But you would be perfectly fine with a mixer, so it's really about whether or not you want a big shiny new "toy" for Christmas or not. 

LLM777's picture

If you're wanting to try by hand, according to your comment, start with the lessons on this site. Up at the top of the home page there are categories with one being "lessons".  I think it covers stand mixers too; I can't remember but if it says "knead", you just put your ingredients in the bowl and turn on your mixer to speed 1 or 2 , that's all, otherwise you could burn up your machine. Just follow what the lesson says and you'll have your start in bread making by hand.

It's a good weekend to start. :)


weekend_baker's picture

I tried out my parents old breadmaker this last week, to make sourdough.  

I used the machine to mix the sponge for a minute or two, left it sitting for about 4 hours, added the rest of the flour and salt, let the machine knead the dough for 10 minutes, proofed it overnight in the fridge, shaped it in the morning, let it rise in the fridge all day in a bowl lined with a couche, got it out, brought it back to room temperature, and cooked it as normal.  I made the dough with a slightly higher hydration level than usual, since that seemed to work better with the dough hook.

I can't compare it to a Kitchen Aid, but it was much less effort and less mess than kneading by hand.  In the run up to Christmas, with the kitchen already full of soaking gammon and grated beetroot, this was a blessing.

The crust was softer than usual (it didn't crackle on coming out of the oven), but it had a lovely open crumb.  

I'm about to bake my second loaf this way.  I don't know if I'll do this always (sometimes the zen of kneading is exactly what I'm looking for) but in the middle of a busy working / cooking / socializing life, it's a great help.

Amy--what *are* you getting for Christmas after all?

Season's Greetings all!