Something so basic, yet so different stands between us

My kinda bread!You’d think it should be this easy: just take a bread machine, throw in all the ingredients listed in the recipe, push a button, wait, remove loaf and eat. Yum.

Nah, of course not. Never is. And there are reasons for this, I’ve been learning.

I have an old bread machine – must be 20 years old or near as dammit – and my results were always mixed, using the recipes in the manual. I constantly tinkered with them. The best loaves were qualified successes. I ate them, Susan balked. The worst were, well, inedible, even for a guy who puts hot sauce on peanut butter.

The machine’s been in the basement fort so long now I’m not sure it still works. Even if it does, it’s a vertical pan and I never liked the crust that produced or the round loaves (when it worked, that is). But I recalled that device last week, with some – possibly misplaced – nostalgia.

Some economic considerations first. I pay $2-$4 for most breads I buy. Some elite types are $5-$7. The small loaves at the $2-$3 range generally last a week, the larger may last two. Depends on what we have for weekend lunch – soup, sandwiches or beans-on-toast. But that’s an average of $2-$3.50 a week on bread. Not a lot of money (Susan has her own bread, but that’s a different tale…).

So a bread maker costs (he checks his notes…) roughly between $100 and $300, depending on whether I want the family sedan or the Rolls Royce model. To justify that cost, the bread I make has to cost less than what I buy. So if I can make a one-week loaf for $1 (most recipes suggest somewhere between 50¢ and $1 per loaf depending on what you add to the mix), it will take me two to six years to amortize the cost. Ouch. But at half that cost, I can justify an inexpensive machine in about a year.

Okay, I can live with that. Just need to convince Susan (this is where the bottle of nice old-vine Zinfandel we’d been saving comes into play…)

Time, I thought, for another one. Bread machine. Not bottle of wine. Or wife.

Last time I bought one, I went into stores, spoke to staff, and essentially chose one at random (as random as my then-threadbare chequebook would allow). This time I have the internet to help me choose. Just read a gazillion reviews, find a model sold in Canada (and, I hope, locally), buy and bake. Fire up the browser and start surfing…

Nah. Not that easy. Nothing ever is.

bread machineFirst, there are a lot more models on the shelves than back then. The choices are significantly wider. And the machines are quite different, with all sorts of bells-n-whistles I’m not sure about. The differences, to a neophyte, are opaque and confusing. It’s like shopping for a stereo or a car.

Started with Always a lot of consumer reviews and people aren’t afraid to say what they think.

Reviews on the Canadian site cross-over from so you get Americans chirping in. Which, it turned out, wasn’t all that helpful because not all brands or makes are available here. A few Canadians chimed in with their own comments (and negative experiences with some otherwise highly-rated machines) that alerted me to a potential problem: flour.

The basic ingredient for bread. Uh oh.

A segue: I love bread. All types, but I really like multi-grain, dense types (like Rudolph’s brand, which you can buy locally), or rustic, super-chewy-crusty types (which you can’t buy locally, at least not the sort I get from a friend who in turn buys them at a bakery in Guelph).

My experience in baking bread – both manually and in machines – was spawned after I took a course at the Toronto Academy of Culinary Arts, about 25 years ago. After that, I baked up a storm of bread, mostly the old fashioned way: by hand. But when we moved here, somehow I got sidetracked and stopped. Now I want to start again.

I used to bake generally denser, whole-wheat breads, often with added grains, or nuts. Sometimes brick-dense on arrival. Okay, my skills did not always equal my passion. I loved the process of preparation; the kneading, the rising, the smell of baking bread. But it’s a time-consuming, messy, space-gobbling thing. Hence the acquisition of a bread machine: convenience.

Not that I’m lazy, but I’d like to put something together at night and wake up to the smell of fresh bread baking downstairs. I’m also a gadget guy and like the idea of a machine with oodles of buttons to press, programs to consider and timers to set. Manuals to read at bedtime.

I digress.  The reviews are all over the place. Love-hate relationships, five star to one star on the same machine. Try to assess them all, like trying to read movie or game reviews. Sigh.

What was that I said earlier? Oh yeah – flour. Flour in the USA is different from flour in Canada. Ours is better (really). Recipes designed for American flour don’t always work well with Canadian flour. Nor do British recipes work with either American or Canadian flour. You have to know the types and make adjustments.

Flour, it seems is what divides and separates our two nations. Friends, but not bakers in the same kitchen. Irrevocable differences in our flours.

A lot of the home bakers on the sites seem to think Canadian flour is the bee’s knees. Even the Americans think so. We get all sorts of kudos for our wheat flour. Maybe we should slip a promo for universal health care in every package… who knows, it might catch on…

Cooks’ Info says:

Canadian flour is the first and still the greatest Canadian success story. Canadian wheat makes the finest flour in the world, bar none. Despite everything that is said about bread vs cake vs pastry flour, somehow magically Canadian all-purpose flour basically handles all those tasks effortlessly. Canadian home cooks and home bakers, in general, don’t really experiment with different types of flour — if you say flour in Canada, it means all-purpose, end of story. Here apparently is the breakdown of Canadian all-purpose flour: 73.0% carbohydrates; 13.0% protein; 14.0% moisture (including 1.0% fats.) The cake and pastry flour reasoning would say that the protein content is too high, so there must be some other factor involves which makes it truly “all-purpose.” The better flours on British grocery shelves proudly advertise that they are made from Canadian wheat. “Buy French” movements in France have been trying to persuade French bread makers to switch from Canadian to French flour, but the bakers haven’t budged.

I blush with Canadian pride. But there are different kinds of flour, not merely nationalities, so the label or name in a recipe matters, too (I’m sure I probably knew this back when I was baking, but I’m an old geezer now and I forgot):

  • All-Purpose (Canada: 100% hard wheat. Can be used for anything; America: 75% hard and 25% soft. Not recommended for bread; UK: Plain flour. Not recommended for bread.
  • Bread Flour (Canada: Exceptionally high gluten flour made for commercial bakeries; America: High gluten content for home bread-making; equivalent of Canadian all-purpose; UK: High gluten content for home bread-making; equivalent of Canadian all-purpose. Also called “strong flour.”)
  • Plain Flour (Canada: Used as Canadians use “all-purpose” flour, except can’t be used for bread; America: Equivalent of American all-purpose flour, including unsuitability for bread; UK: Used like all-purpose flour, but can’t be used for bread.)
  • Strong Flour (Canada: British term for bread flour. Use all-purpose in Canada; America: British term for bread flour. Use bread flour; UK:  Used throughout UK for bread.)
  • Whole Wheat Flour (Same in Canada, America and Britain.)

Keep those distinctions in mind (along with Cake Flour, Pastry Flour and Self-rising Flour). So what’s the difference between all these types?

On Chowhound, I found some figures collected by people equally as baffled as I as to this information which relates to American brands of flour:

  • Cake Flour 5 to 8% protein – cakes
  • Pastry Flour 8 to 9% protein – pie crusts, pastries, cookies, biscuits
  • Self-Rising Flour 9 to 11% protein – biscuits, quick breads, cookies
  • All-Purpose Flour 9 to 12% protein – everyday cooking, quick breads, pastries
  • Bread Flour Flour 12 to 13% protein – traditional breads, bread machine, pizza crusts
  • Whole Wheat Flour 14% protein – hearth breads, blending with other flours
  • High-Gluten Flour 14 to 15% protein – bagels, pizza crusts, blending with other flours

“Protein indicates the amount of gluten available in the flour. Gluten is the substance that develops when the protein, which occurs naturally in wheat flour, is combined with liquid. Because gluten is able to stretch elastically, it is desirable to have a higher gluten flour for yeast-raised products, which have doughs that are stretched extensively; like pizza, most breads, and bagels. For piecrusts, cookies, and pastry to be short and crumbly, a lower protein flour is better. Protein levels range from 7% in pastry and cake flours to as high as 15% in high-gluten bread flour.” – King Arthur Flour.

According to another poster on The Fresh Loaf, the ” Canadian Grain Commission decreed that all Canadian (hard) white flour should have at least 13% protein” which would make our all-purpose flour the equivalent of American bread flour.

I didn’t even know there was a Canadian Grain Commission, but here it is. It’s chock full of geeky information about wheat and flour, like this analysis of the 2010 wheat harvest:

Sponge-and-dough and CSP baking absorptions for both the 13.5% and 12.5% protein segregates are running 2 to 3% lower than last year. The No. 1 CWRS 13.5 straight grade and patent flours exhibit greater strength using the CSP method with longer mixing times and higher energy requirements this year relative to 2009, while the patent flour also exhibited stronger mixing requirements in the sponge-and-dough formulation. The 2010 No. 1 CWRS 12.5 flours show similar characteristics but to a lesser extent. Loaf volumes for the 13.5% protein segregate showed no significant difference from last year under both baking formulations. The straight grade flour from the 12.5% protein segregate showed significant improvement in loaf volume in the sponge-and-dough formulation.

I can’t find anywhere that the level of protein is regulated, but this paper on improvements in wheat flour (titled, Future of flour: A compendium of flour improvement), says:

There are three milling grades of CWRS. No 1 and No 2 CWRS are routinely marketed at guaranteed protein levels. The most frequent protein guarantee is 13.5% (13.5% moisture basis) because the long-term average protein content of CWRS is 13.6%.

That’s taken me down a path I didn’t intend to follow. But still interesting. Slide over to Agriculture Canada’s site to read:

The baking quality of a flour is defined by the elasticity (strength) of the gluten, the volume and crust of the loaf, and the quantity of water absorbed. The volume of the loaf and the strength of the gluten may be considered together, as loaf volume depends on the elasticity of the wet gluten in the dough. The yeast acts on the starch and produces carbon dioxide (CO2) and alcohol. The dough mass fills with CO2, the volume of the dough increases, and the dough rises. If the dough is not subjected to the baking temperature, the elasticity of the walls around the gas-filled spaces reaches its limit, the walls break, the gases are released, and the dough contracts and returns to its original volume.

During the bread-making process, however, the dough is placed into an oven before it reaches its greatest volume. At this point the walls of the gas-filled spaces begin to harden as the gluten stiffens, the yeast organisms die and gas production ceases. The gluten in the flour gives the walls of the spaces their elasticity, which keeps the accumulated gases from escaping. Obviously, the capacity of the membrane depends on the elasticity of the gluten. This capacity is usually determined by means of a baking test, which allows the membrane to expand while retaining its form, and by the uniformity of the membrane. The size of the baked loaf is a very important assessment factor: its quality is more difficult to define than its volume, however, because the important features here are the distribution of the spaces and the thickness of their walls (Figure 4).

This image compares types of wheat and their ability to form a bold well-shaped loaf. The weak loaf is small and flat, the strong loaf is big and round.

During the mixing of the dough for baking, water is added to the flour until the dough becomes fully formed. The amount of water absorbed by the dough ball depends on the quality of the flour. The water-absorbing capacity is a very important factor for the baker because the greater the capacity to absorb water, the more bread can be baked from a barrel of flour. The weight of a loaf after baking is also very important to the baker: it defines the water-holding capacity of the flour, which defines the productivity of the bread.

Wow. Lots of good stuff, although I’m getting seriously off track. It’s a long page, but towards the end you read:

The average protein content in Canadian wheat was about 13.6%, although in some localities it could be as high as 20%, while the world average was only about 10%. The quality of its Ukrainian ancestors also gave Canadian wheat a high water absorption capacity. Its flour produced dough with excellent kneading qualities, suitable for great variations in fermentation and large substantial loaves of bread with an excellent crust.

I’m getting patriotic shivers all over. I feel like running out and buying bags of Canadian flour and just eating it raw. Or maybe putting it on my flagpole. Maybe we don’t need to regulate our flour’s protein content because it’s so damned good it does it all on its own.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has kept detailed information on the bread yield from different kinds of flour for many years. Their findings on the quantity of bread that could be baked from one 106-pound barrel of flour milled in various countries in 1956 are as follows (No. 256, p. 25):

Weight of bread in pounds

  • Canada: 293
  • United States: 289
  • Russia: 289
  • Australia: 286
  • Argentina: 285
  • England: 285
  • Italy: 285
  • Germany: 283

A British committee investigating the quality of baking different types of wheat placed them in this order:


  • I Northern Canadian Spring: 100
  • U.S. No. 1 Northern Spring: 100
  • U.S. No. 1 Red Winter: 85
  • Russian “Girka”: 85
  • Argentina: 80
  • Indian White Select Karachi: 75
  • Australian: 70
  • English Domestic: 65

Who knew? Makes you wonder why we don’t have a wheat stalk on our flag instead of a maple leaf, eh? Okay let’s leave this path and go back to bread machines (but if you find it fascinating like I did, read this paper if you want more of the same…).

Bread Machine Digest suggests:

 …if you are unsure if you are going to use a bread machine much, get a cheap one. This does several things for you. First, it gets you started without spending a lot of money. It will give you a chance to see if you like bread machines, if you don’t then you haven’t wasted a lot of money and lastly it gives you some experience so if you decide you want a more expensive one you have an idea of what features you do and don’t want.

Cheap  seems like good advice until you scroll down and see his (her?) list of suggested machines are all pretty much in the Roll Royce category (like the Zojirushi BBCC-X20). Urk. A $100 machine I might get Susan to agree to. A sexy $300 machine with an unpronounceable name that looks as big as a microwave oven… I’ll need that second bottle of Zinfandel, please…

Why not, as one Facebook friend posted, just get a mixer and bake my own? Bread Machine Digest answers this well enough for me…

I am asked this one question often. My answer is…the bread machine is easier. With the stand mixer you put the ingredients in and turn it on, you then have to stand there until the kneading is done usually 10 to 20 minutes. You then have to remove the dough to a greased bowl, cover and let rise. You then have to punch the dough down, knead a little bit, shape it, and then place it in a greased bread pan to rise, then pop it in the oven, wait around 30 to 40 minutes and then remove it from the oven.

With a bread machine, you put the ingredients in. Start the machine. Watch the kneading for a few minutes to make sure the dough is the correct consistency and then you are free to go. You can even leave the house and not have to worry about your bread. The main advantage is you spend 10 minutes making a loaf of bread versus the 30 to 40 minutes it would take to do it with a mixer, this doesn’t include rising times.

He (she?) doesn’t happen to mention that, for some guys, kitchen appliances are like tools. You gotta have them. A basement without power saws, drills, routers and rotary tools is just an underground storage shed. A kitchen without gadgets feels empty, like a hotel room with a coffee maker: convenient but not really complete.

Sure, I could do it the manly manual way. But the geek in me wants the plug-in device. If only it came with a USB port so I could run it from my laptop… (or I could get both the mixer and the machine, but that’s really pushing the ability of red wine to influence Susan’s usual skeptical approach to my expensive schemes… it might take dinner out, too… ).

So are there different recipes for bread machines designed for Canadians? Apparently – although I have not been able to learn if the machines come with those in their manuals or (as I suspect) simply use the American manuals. I have, however, found several sites with advice and recipes aimed at Canadians, including:

Which means that I will at least have fallback recipes should the machine’s manual be less-than-Canadian in its directions.

So which machine will I buy? I dunno. I’m still reading the reviews. I’ll have to drive around town, see what’s in stock, too. Make some notes, come back home and check the reviews of those machines. If nothing sings to me, I’ll have to consider a drive to Barrie or Owen Sound. Or buying online (Amazon Canada ships them… and I really doubt I can find a Zojirushi in the local Canadian Tire store… )

It may take a while. A few weekends rummaging through store shelves. And drinking more wine. I’ll let you know how it all turns out. If you go by my place and smell fresh bread… you’ll know.  If you see us sitting on the deck having a glass of wine – we still have some talking to do.

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  1. Pingback: The New Art of the Old: Baking Artisan Bread | Scripturient: Blog & Commentary

  2. Elaine Dowd

    Great article. I have been told for years that our flour was the best in the world but I thought it was because my family were farmers. Once I started hearing from snowbirds who actually carry bags of flour down with them I started to believe and I fully accepted our magnificence when a miller from the UK said they love our flour, but they can’t afford it.!!!

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