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Grains of Wisdom on Bread Machines

March 18, 1993|PAT GERBER | Pat Gerber is a member of The Times Orange County Edition staff.

Bread machines seem to pack this inherent irony: Finding the right model to make one of life's most simple, basic foods can be a complicated, confusing process.

The machines have become one of the hottest items in small kitchen appliances and are being sold by hardware stores, discount warehouses, department stores, cooking outlets and gourmet shops. Even Circuit City, more noted for TVs and stereo equipment, has started to carry them.

The machines perform a simple function. You put the flour, yeast and other ingredients into them, and they take care of the mixing, kneading, rising and baking--producing a few hours later a loaf of homemade bread.

But with the explosion in popularity of the these high-tech appliances, trying to figure out which one to buy can be as confusing as buying a computer, which in a sense is what you are doing, considering these machines' electronic components.

Aside from Consumer Reports magazine, which hasn't reviewed bread-making machines since 1988, a good way to find out which machine works best is to ask the everyday people who use them, via the people who sell them. An informal survey--emphasis on informal --asked two simple questions from a random sampling of retailers: Based on feedback from your customers, which ones do you recommend, and why?

Three machines kept turning up as odds-on favorites: Panasonic, Zojirushi and Hitachi.

A fourth, the National, was considered by some to be the Cadillac model, but it's a bit pricey.

Panasonic's high-end model is preferred by most of the cooking instructors who shop at the Bullock's housewares department in Mission Viejo, said assistant manager Perry Southerland.

These customers like the Panasonic partly because it has a yeast dispenser. This feature mixes the yeast with the rest of the ingredients at a certain point in the cycle and keeps it from getting prematurely wet, which could kill its rising properties and leave you at the end of the process with something that resembles a brick.

Customers also prefer the reliability of the Panasonic--it was Southerland's best-selling housewares item during the holidays--maybe because their cooking instructors have one, he speculates. This particular model, which makes 1 1/2-pound loaves, isn't cheap, though. It retails for more than $350.

Bullock's also sells a lot of the Zojirushi, which retails for about $250. It can bake up to 200 recipes and also make jam but doesn't have the yeast dispenser.

Patsy Simon, housewares manager and buyer for DeNault Hardware, a chain of six hardware stores in South County, has been experimenting with bread machines at home and at the store ever since they came out several years ago. It's the one appliance she uses almost every day, she said. Her criteria for quality: a unit that is dependable but whose price tag won't break the bank.

For the six stores, she has settled on a Hitachi model, which retails for about $200. She also likes the Zojirushi, which sells in the same range as Bullock's. She finds the Zojirushi especially consumer-friendly because the company has a one-year, over-the-counter replacement policy.

Costco, the discount warehouse, likes the Hitachi model best--it's the only one the store carries--because its baking is consistent, it's easy to operate and the company provides an 800 service number, said assistant buyer Wendy Morales.

She notes that Hitachi has a healthy part of the bread-making machine market. Costco figures that if the product has been selling that well, then people must like it, and that's a big factor in the decision to carry it. Costco sells it for less than $200.

Gourmet gadget retailer Williams-Sonoma has settled on the National, which sports such features as a French bread crisper cycle and the automatic yeast dispenser. The Costa Mesa store in South Coast Plaza, which is No. 1 among the company's 100 stores with annual sales of $2.5 million, counted its bread machines among its Top 5 selling items during the holidays, said Kathy Major, assistant store manager.

The company, which trades on its reputation for quality kitchen items, chose the brand after rigorous testing, Major said.

But before you take a bite of that crispy loaf, consider the price tag, which is a bit tough to swallow: almost $400.

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