Here’s my current bread machine — number 4 in 24+ years. I got it 3 years ago after my (then) excellent machine’s bread pan got bent to the point of being unusable. That bread machine was no longer being made (it was 11 years old) and I couldn’t find a replacement for the pan. So — I ended up with this Zojirushi machine instead. It has many great features — but then so did its predecessor. There are many bells and whistles available on various machine — some of which should be part of the decision process, and some that don’t really amount to anything but a bell or a whistle.
Let me start by pointing out some of this machine’s big wins in the PLUS column, and then a few notes about what’s missing that I think should be there — or should be there INSTEAD of some of the current whiz-bang features. This is purely subjective — and know in advance that I use my machine at least 4 and as much as 8 times a week for cake, coffee-cake, bread, cornbread, and even for casserole-type meals. So I think I’m giving this machine a fair test….
- You’ll notice that this machine has a window in the top. However, the window is so small, and so dark, that I defy anyone, anywhere without a flashlight or a direct overhead light bulb to be able to see anything through it. Which makes this feature useless.
- This is a very BIG machine. It has the biggest footprint of any small appliance in my kitchen except for the microwave. It’s also incredibly heavy. Don’t expect to be moving this one about, or storing it under a cabinet when it isn’t in use — to whip it out for a quick loaf.
I could lift it when I first got it, but with my hands as they are now — not a chance.
- Here’s the inside pan — notice that it has 2 mixing paddles. I’m assuming that a bread machine big enough to make a 2 pound loaf couldn’t possibly mix all the ingredients with just one paddle — not and expect to get everything mixed properly.However, at least half the recipes I make in this machine require me to use a spatula to assist the paddles so everything gets mixed in (and doesn’t leave little pockets of dry flour and other bits in the corners and along the sides of the pan.) This doesn’t happen so often with actual bread — where the dough is so sticky that it picks up stray bits as if it were made of duct-tape. But it does happen with quickbread, coffee cake, and anything that approaches batter instead of dough.When I forget to check the machine during the mixing process — I usually get a bad surprise when I take the finished product out of the pan.
This isn’t good.
- Here’s the control panel. I had a hard time making the switch from my old machine to this one. It seemed to complicate almost everything about the process. After 3 years — and a lot of trial and error — I’m finally comfortable with the controls.Most of the features are pretty obvious — which is good since the instructions for this — like all of the Zojirushi products I’ve ever owned — are insufficient to the point of using them to line the cat’s litter box. I’m not sure if the problem is Japanese tech writers who believe they speak English well enough for the American reader/cook, or Japanese tech writers who don’t know anything about cooking, engineering for the cook, or bread baking. The bottom line is, don’t count on any Zo machine instructions to actually tell you anything you need to know.The most un-obvious thing you need to know about this machine is how to set the “home-made” options. These are the 3 program-able “courses” you can define for yourself. (What is a “course” you ask? — it’s the program options, of course.” If you hit that ovoid “Select Course” button over and over again, you’ll see the little arrow (see where it’s pointing to BASIC in the picture?) move from Basic –> to Quick –> to Wheat –> to Dough –> to Jam –> to Cake –> to Sourdough Starter –> to Home made. When you get to Home Made, it will show you Home Made 1, Home Made 2, and Home Made 3 — and you get to program each of these 3 options yourself with the TIME and CYCLE buttons.
Being programmable is what saves this machine from the obscurity reserved for badly engineered mechanical and computerized time and labor-saving devises — that don’t save time or labor.
It turns out — if you use the CAKE course (program) — what you get is 25 minutes of batter mixing followed by a standard baking cycle.
What’s wrong with this? you ask.
What’s wrong is that when you are making a cake, quick bread, coffee cake, muffins, or other baking soda/baking powder leavened batter, you generally mix it by hand — for a very brief time and a very few strokes. Why? Because beating it longer causes chemestry-type changes in wheat flour. Over mixing causes the cake to be less “tender,” moist, light, fluffy, etc. It also causes the leavening (bubbling) process to exhaust itself before the baking begins — and therefore fewer air bubbles creating spaces between all those batter bits means no fluff and no rise, and creates and heavy, dense cake.
Why would the machine have this kind of a CAKE program? Beats me. But there is a fix for it. Program the Home Made 1 cycle to suit your preferences for cake. I programmed a 4 minute mix cycle, followed by a slightly-longer-than-average bake cycle, since my pumpkin bread, ginger bread, cinnamon coffee cake, brownies, and lemon-blueberry pound cake were all coming out a little under-done in the middle.
But here’s the only REAL problem with no decipherable remedy.
The Zo bread machines — like the Zo rice cookers and I assume many other Zo products — does not allow for correcting mistakes.
What if your bread or cake or whatever beeps DONE — and horror-of-horrors — it isn’t actually done….? Whether because of humidity, air pressure, bad luck, gremlins, or power outage — if the beeper beeps — the machine is done until you reset it and let it cool off. There is no “grace” setting that lets you immediately enter a timed “continue baking” for emergencies. I’ve lost loaves of bread and every other kind of thing I cook in this machine to this bit of stupid under-engineering.
And I’ve had the exact same problem with my Zo Rice Cooker.
One more bit of programming — one tiny little button that lets you “Continue Baking” for 5, 10, 15 or 20 minutes — that’s all it would take.
This Zo bread machine has one more little quirk you need to be aware of if you use it. There is no automatic shut-off. If you notice on the control panel — the button in the middle on the bottom says START/RESET. By default, when this machine finishes baking — it shifts itself to a “keep warm” mode rather than shutting itself off. I guess this is a reasonable option — in case you fall asleep while the bread is baking — but it never actually resets itself — even if the keep-warm cycle runs out and it stops heating. You have to manually tell it — even if it has been sitting idle for 18 hours — that it needs to reset and be ready for the next command. This is just silliness and dumb programming. It’s also a pain in the ass. It should know when it’s all finished running through a program — and reset itself.
Having said all that — I picked this machine because Zo — in spite of all its problems — makes excellent kitchen equipment. In fact, I will probably buy another Zo when this one dies — provided it lives as long a life as I expect it will. It’s expensive — you can buy 2 or 3 lesser machines for the cost — but those 2 or 3 lesser machines will not give you the options, performance, or reliable quality of the Zo. And, they (like my first ever bread machine back in the late 80’s) will probably drop dead inside of a couple of years.
In fact — if this were a lush economy — I’d be buying the little 1lb loaf machine to go with this one — just to have the option of making bread and cake at the same time. Or bread and pasta dough. Or bread and meatloaf. Or bread and lasagna. Or cake and tuna casserole. Or cornbread and tamale pie. Or baked grits and brownies…..
HANDS FREE BAKING
It turns out, there are problems associated with baking (for me and my lame-duck hands) beyond just not being able to knead bread dough. Obviously, I haven’t done much of that lately — since I’ve been using a machine for over 20 years. I did, however, make scones, muffins, biscuits, pie crusts, and popovers by hand all that time. The days of cutting butter into flour are gone. But unfortunately, so are most of the days of dipping a measuring cup into a flour bin or a sugar canister — or even carrying a cup full of water across the room from the sink. Think about how you hold a measuring cup handle. It’s a lever. The weight of the contents of the cup has to be offset by pressure from the thumb — and the pressure from the thumb changes when you empty the contents out of the cup. Add the weight of the water (or whatever) to the weight of either a metal cup or a (yikes!) pyrex-type glass cup — plus the pressure of scooping up a cup of this or that from a bin — all leverage issues — and baking, like all cooking, becomes a tricky proposition.
Physics is my enemy. Torque. Leverage. Blagh.
Yes, I know. These are stresses of a very short duration on these stupid teeth-grindingly painful thumb joints. And yes, I do just bite the bullet a lot of the time. I’ve given up twist-off top sodas (or I let Jim open them.) I’ve given up jars of applesauce and bottles of catsup (catsup, mustard, mayo, and salad dressing now come in convenient squirt-top plastic bottles. hooray!!!!) I’ve given up grinding pepper for an electric pepper mill. I let Jim open cans of green beans and corn. I’ve made a litany of changes in the kitchen.
And now I’ve made another.
Bread mixes. Cake mixes. Muffin mixes. Brownie mixes. Mixes mixes mixes mixes.
I know what you’re thinking. “What about all those great bread machine recipes?” Olive Bread. PIzza Bread. Baked Potato Bread. Well — I save those for days when my hands are up to snuff. But most of the time — I now default to the simplest and easiest (on the hands) possible route. And I’ll let you in on a secret — if you start with a plain potato bread mix — and add sour cream for half the water, plus crumbled bacon, Penzey’s freeze-dried shallots, a cup of Kraft 2% Milkfat Shredded Sharp Cheddar Cheese and an extra teaspoon of rapid yeast — you’ll end up with Baked Potato Bread just as good as any scratch recipe.
Most of my other hard-fought recipes convert just as easily. A tweak here — a little extra yeast there — easy as — well — pie. Bread, actually. Why the extra yeast? (an an equal smidge of extra sugar to feed the yeast…) Because adding heavy olives, cheese, bacon, pepperoni, sun-dried tomatoes etc means adding a compensating amount of yeast to provide more lift. More yeast, more lift. More gluten, more elasticity. More salt — kills off some of the yeast. More fat — more weight and more savor. Cheese and bacon both add salt — so more yeast is required to counter both the extra weight and the extra salt! It’s all a big chemistry set…..
Did you know that almost all of the supermarket big-name brand cake, muffin and other mixes still use partially-hydrogenated fats/trans-fats?
Once you get away from the big mass-marketed grocery store shelf fillers, however — the trends are good. Whole grains, high fiber, no-none-not a bit-zero-zilch- not one milligram of bad fats, msg, preservatives, artificial colors, artificial flavors etc seem to be the order of the day for mom-and-pop, all natural, and organic up-and-comers. If they haven’t completely converted to these high standards, they are well on their way — especially compared to the likes of those brands we grew up with.
And — if your local big-name grocery doesn’t carry these boutique baking mixes, all you have to do is go online and have a browse at your local Amazon.com — because they carry EVERYTHING.
My first impulse was to hot online at the King Arthur Baker’s Catalog site. And I bought several rounds of their products before realizing that their products were still infected with the bad fats and other pitfalls that traumatized me via Betty Crocker, Krusteze, and Dunkin Hines — and AND A-N-D they were over-priced! At 5.95 per bread or muffin mix, plus at least 1.30 for shipping per mix, they peddle the less healthy stuff for roughly 2-4 times the going rate for the boutique organic and all natural mixes at Amazon. And if you find mixes in the SUBSCRIBE AND SAVE option at Amazon — you save an additional 15% in addition to their already deep deep savings, no tax, and no shipping.
In my kitchen right now I have cake, brownie, quick bread, and bread mixes by 5 different boutique companies — with prices ranging from 2.20 per mix, to 4.10 per mix. Beer bread, sour cream pound cake, parmesan and herb bread, pumpernickel, potato bread, honey wheat, oat bread, raspberry-chocolate chip quick bread, black forest cake, lemon poppy seed, vanilla bean cake, applesauce cake, pumpkin spice cake, carrot cake, cinnamon chip cake, double chocolate w/ chips cake, coconut cake — and it’s all good.
Tear open a mix, crack an egg, add water and or butter, add the yeast for bread — and voilà! Good for you, hot out of the oven, add a few special ingredients if you like — and this is the way to go. Jim gets warm cake made fresh 2-3 times a week. There’s always something fresh-baked when the kids show up at the door. Fresh bread in the toaster is better than just about anything on the bread aisle at the market — it’s all good.
Add to that Amazon’s customer service — well let me tell you about Amazon’s customer service. We got a box of bread mix delivered to our house this afternoon by UPS. 12 bread mixes inside — but instead of an Amazon shipping box, they were in a generic brown box, with a note hand written on the top — LEAKED ON / RAIN. When we opened the box, we found it had been re-packed by UPS because evidently the original box was in a rainstorm somewhere on its trip here. Inside were 12 boxes of bread mix in varying stages of collapse. The mix boxes were still wet, disintegrating, and had already begun to mold from being sealed up in a heavy cardboard box with all that water. A few of the yeast packets — which I would have supposed would be water/air tight — had begun to swell. The mixes themselves seemed to be still sealed in plastic — but I had no idea how many would actually be useable. Mold and its accompanying odor can usually penetrate even stout plastic bags.
So I used the CONTACT US feature at Amazon and within 3 minutes was talking to someone at their service center. And within 5 more minutes, they were shipping me an entire replacement for the order, at no charge.
This is good customer service. Add to that the other thing I know about Amazon — they sell so much stuff that it’s ALWAYS fresh — and this is the best deal going. Even if none of those rain-soaked boxes of mix turns out to be usable, I’m still not out anything because the box got soaked in the rain somewhere between Amazon’s warehouse and my local UPS truck (because you know it hasn’t rained here in almost a 8 months….)