A Tale of Two Loaves

Two loaves, Jan 3 2014
Fresh from the machine and from the oven

An interesting experiment this week: using the same basic set of ingredients to make bread, but one made by hand, the other in the bread machine, both made the same day.

I’ve been curious about this ever since I got the machine. Would the two methods create similar breads if I used roughly the same ingredients? I say roughly because I used a bread machine recipe found in a book, including all of the ingredients listed (substituting a small amount of honey for the sugar listed, and avocado oil for generic vegetable oil.)

In the handmade loaf, however, I included no additional honey or oil, because my tried-and-true recipe didn’t call for them.

In both, I substituted roughly 50g of water called for in the recipe for 50g of buttermilk.

Two loaves, Jan 3 2014
Ends sliced for comparison

Or would the loaves be very different? As you can see by the photographs, the height is clearly greater in the left (bread machine) loaf. A difference was expected, but the amount surprised me. The bread machine loaf was also less symmetrical than the handmade loaf. That’s just an aesthetic thing, but I like the symmetry.

I think I know the reason – or rather reasons – for that height difference (more below).

The bread machine loaf is almost too tall for everyday use. It doesn’t fit comfortably into the toaster – about 1.5 inches (38mm) sticking out. That means turning the slice half-way through the toasting. A bit of a pain.

The flour was in the same proportions, although quantities varied slightly. The bread machine recipe was listed in volumetric measurements (cups of flour), while the handmade recipe used weights. The mix of flours was approximately one third whole wheat to two thirds unbleached white. It’s not possible to match the two measurements exactly because a cup of flour weighs different amounts depending on whether it’s fluffed or sifted, its humidity and your own personal measuring technique.

While I haven’t actually measured the temperature during the breadmaking cycle, I believe the bread maker acts as a proofing box. It warms the dough slightly during the rise cycle. This would make sense, because it would help guarantee consistency in widely-differing home environments.

That’s a real advantage, and makes me want to test the machine solely for its dough cycle. More on that, below.

Bread machine loaf, crumb
Bread machine loaf, crumb

My handmade dough rises in the ambient room temperature of the open kitchen – generally running a cool 62F (17C) during the majority of the day. Dough doesn’t rise quickly here (optimum rising temperature is 70-80F or 21-27C). I often put the rising bowl on the stove near the heat exhaust and turn on the oven at a low temperature (170F is the lowest the gas oven will accept, but I can turn off the oven before it reaches that), so the escaping hot air helps warm it.

My handmade bread began with a small poolish the night before (190g flour, 190g water). The bread machine doesn’t use one. It had roughly doubled in size when I used it in the mix.

The machine recipe calls for 1 teaspoon of salt, the handmade for 10 grams. That’s quite a difference. Because I use kosher (coarse) salt, the grain size is large, so less salt fits into a volume than table salt. This suggests the machine loaf was probably under-salted. Since salt acts as a yeast inhibitor, that likely played into the greater rising of the bread machine loaf. Also, when we ate the bread last night (with some of Susan’s delicious homemade turkey stew), there was a small but noticeable difference in the saltiness between the two.

I usually cut back the salt when I’m making bread – 7 or 8 grams. But I stuck to the recipe this time to see what resulted. I suspect the extra salt slowed and limited the rise, although the result was not too dense.

Handmade loaf, crumb
Handmade loaf, crumb

I used Fleishmann’s bread machine yeast in both recipes – it’s a little faster-acting than traditional dry yeast. Normally, I use the traditional yeast. Both act the same, but the bread machine spherical yeast pellets are smaller, so the yeast inside gets activated sooner. The traditional yeast is best activated in a little warm water before mixing (which I didn’t do this time for my experiment with bread machine yeast). However, I should probably have used different yeasts for reasons explained below.

The machine loaf calls for 1 teaspoon of yeast – a lot more yeast than the handmade recipe calls for.

There’s a lot of yeast in a very small amount. One estimate says a teaspoon of yeast may contain 450 billion yeast cells, another that there are 600 billion in a gram (this may be true of live yeast, but both of which overstate the number in instant dried yeast, since the yeast is encased in granules of non-active material to keep it dormant). This site tells me one gram of instant yeast has 20 billion cells, and the standard package of yeast contains 7 grams, so 140 billion cells. (Red Star Yeast says a packet is roughly 2.25 teaspoons and weighs 1/4 oz).*

Yeast is often measured in volumetric methods in small recipes simply because kitchen scales are not sensitive enough to weigh them properly. My two scales both struggle to measure anything less than 3-4 grams. However, because of the physical size difference, bread machine and traditional yeast may produce different results. They are also, it seems different strains of yeast. Fleishmann’s tells us:

RapidRise and Bread Machine Yeast are different strains than Active Dry Yeast. RapidRise and Bread Machine Yeast are grown with a higher level of nutrients and are dried to lower moisture content. The particle size of RapidRise and Bread Machine Yeast are finely granulated to allow complete hydration of the yeast cells during the mixing process. The Active Dry Yeast larger particle size should be dissolved in water to achieve complete hydration prior to adding to the mixer. In addition, RapidRise and Bread Machine Yeast contain ascorbic acid resulting in increased loaf volumes.

The handmade recipe calls for less yeast, and added at different times (1/8 tsp in the poolish; 1/8 later with the dough). The poolish gives the yeast a chance to get started and the colony to grow over a longer period of time.

Less yeast makes better bread, more makes faster-rising bread. Yeast needs time to grow its colony, and in doing so convert the starches and carbohydrates in the flour to byproducts, as well as gas. It’s those byproducts that give bread its flavour. So faster isn’t necessarily better: it may result in tasteless bread because you get the gas, but not the byproducts. That’s the advantage of the poolish: a third of the bread has had a long time (12-16 hours) to develop into tasty dough. (I’ve often wondered what the result would be if I made the entire mix, not just the poolish, and let it stand overnight…. I sense another test coming up…)

Bread machine recipes often compensate for the lower flavour from the yeast by including other ingredients, like sugar, molasses, eggs, milk, etc.

The bread machine has a kneading cycle built in (see below for some thoughts on cycles) that is fairly rough on dough. Tough love, I guess. My technique for the most handmade bread is to mix the dough, let it autolyze, then gently fold and stretch it for a few minutes every hour during the rising cycle. It helps build gluten chains, which in turn help the rise because the gluten strands help trap the air. (there’s an argument whether traditional “hard” kneading or folding works best, but I have no position on either… I don’t care to put a lot of effort into the process, so folding works for me).

I might be a bit lax in the folding process and the timing, but the bread machine is a robot of absolute precision.

Two loaves, Jan 3 2014
Side by side

The bread machine has a controlled period for every step and cannot be altered. The handmade is casual. I turn the oven off when the bread looks right, not always on the exact time the clock tells it it’s done.

So the reasons for the difference in heights, I suspect, is a combination of temperature during the rise, differences in salt used, and the additional yeast in the machine loaf.

But what did they taste and feel like? Actually very similar; the handmade loaf was slightly saltier, and the machine bread slightly blander, but there was no significantly distinct flavour in either that stood out and said “I’m the better!”

The crust of the handmade was better: crispy and chewier, and the crumb was denser (which contributes to a moderately more intense flavour). To my mouth, it felt and tasted better, but that’s subjective (and likely influenced by my prejudiced for the handmade method).

The machine loaf was lighter – the crumb more like commercial sandwich bread – and had a fair crust – but when toasted that crust lost too much of its chewiness and became crumbly. When toasted, the handmade was still a bit chewy. That’s a small advantage; the difference between an A and a B+ on the report card.

So for this experiment, the handmade bread wins. Not by a lot, but I can improve that.

A note on bread machines and cycle: My Black & Decker has 14 different settings, from white bread to dough to bake only, with three setting for size (1.5, 2 and 3 lb loaves; no metric equivalents) and light, medium and dark crust. The manual is vague and sparse in its descriptions of the differences between, say white and French bread settings.

The bread was baked on the white setting because the whole wheat setting lets the ingredients sit for about 25 minutes before mixing. That’s passingly mentioned in the manual: to allow better water absorption of the whole wheat flour. Might be good for all-whole wheat loaves, but not necessary for the mix I use. And I would argue that the absorption of water would be facilitated by a little mixing first. Aside from this lengthy delay, I am not aware of any difference between whole wheat and white bread settings.

I plan to test the machine for its dough cycle in my next loaves. I’ve even thought of pulling out the paddles and using that cycle simply for warming a dough after I’ve mixed it by hand – basically as a proofing box. Stay tuned…

* Pastryscoop tells us:

Active Dry Yeast
1 teaspoon = 0.10 ounce = 3 grams
2 1/2 teaspoons = 0.25 ounce = 7 grams
3 tablespoons + 1 teaspoon = 1 ounce = 28 grams


Active dry yeast: Yeast that is dormant and dried and brought to life when proofed in lukewarm and warm water (105°F-115°F). It can be stored at room temperature, but is best preserved in the refrigerator or freezer. It is sold in dated 0.25-ounce packets and 4-ounce jar in the supermarket. Do not use packages that have exceeded their expiration date.
Rapid-rise (or quick-rise) yeast: A strain of yeast that is fed with larger amounts of phosphorus and ammonia to increase the enzyme activity. It cuts the dough’s rising time in half. This yeast works best when added directly to the dry ingredients without prior rehydration, and with the liquid temperature about 120°F-125°F. There is a small loss of flavor and storage quality in the finished products because of the yeast’s fast fermentation. It is interchangeable with other dry yeasts if necessary. It is available in 0.25-ounce packets and 4-ounce jars.
Instant yeast: A European strain dried yeast that contains three times more “live” yeast cells than active dry yeast. Instant yeast doesn’t need to proof in liquid; it can be added directly to the recipe with the dry ingredients (although soaking wouldn’t hurt it). It is coated with ascorbic acid and a form of sugar that enables the yeast to activate immediately on contact with warm liquid. It also has a greater resistance to temperatures and can be activated in temperatures ranging from tepid to hot (80°F-120°F). Instant yeast enables dough to be baked without any initial rising time. Store it in an air tight container in the freezer.

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Author: Ian Chadwick

Writer, editor, reviewer, communications consultant, former municipal politician, researcher, ukulele musician, media relations consultant, fan of Shakespeare and Chaucer, tequila aficionado, lay historian, chess player, PC gamer, avid reader, skeptic, website tinkerer, companion to two dogs and four cats, loving husband, harmonica & bass player, passionate about my small town, and perennially curious about everything.