Wednesday, February 13, 2013

One less gadget

For most of our married life, Brian and I haven't bought any sliced bread, aside from the occasional loaf of a tasty-looking rye or challah off the sale rack. Instead, we relied on our bread machine, together with a couple of cookbooks devoted entirely to bread recipes. Every time we finished off a loaf, we'd just select a new variety from one of our cookbooks and toss the ingredients into the pan. The whole process took about five minutes, including cleanup. We enjoyed a variety of tasty breads, such as honey oatmeal, egg bread, sourdough, and raisin pumpernickel. Most of them could even be set up the night before with the machine on a timer, so we could have piping-hot bread waiting for us when we got up the next morning.

After a while, though, the machine developed a problem. It started making a horrible squealing noise whenever it ran. Brian took it apart and fiddled with it, and eventually he got the problem to stop—for a while. But it kept coming back, and he kept having to take it apart and tighten the same whatzit, until it reached the point where he had to take it apart pretty much every time he wanted to use it. At which point it became pretty clear that this device was no longer a time-saver. After one last attempt last weekend to fix the thing, he declared it officially dead.

So it might seem that our logical next step should be to consult ConsumerSearch to find the best new bread machine on the market and where to buy it. Unlike the last time we tried to buy a bread machine, back in 2008, it is actually possible to find them in stores nowadays; my guess is that the Great Recession has sparked a resurgence of interest in baking bread at home. And there are also several basic, reliable models sold on for less than $100. And given that we loved our bread machine and used it all the time, there should be no question that replacing it would be a worthwhile use of money.

So why haven't we?

Well, I think the main reason is that my husband really likes cooking, and baking in particular. I enjoy it now and then, but if the choice had been solely up to me, I probably would have opted for the convenience of being able to throw a new loaf together in a few minutes. But Brian actually enjoys the whole process of kneading the dough by hand, letting it rise, putting it in the pans, and pulling them out of the oven. So I think that for him, the demise of the bread machine wasn't so much a loss as an excuse to get hands-on with bread dough on a regular basis.

There's also an economic argument to be made for ditching the bread machine and doing it the old-fashioned way. Way back in the nineties, Amy Dacyczyn (the Frugal Zealot) explored the economics of bread machines in the pages of the Tightwad Gazette. She compared bread-machine loaves to both homemade and store-bought bread and reached the following conclusions:
  • Bread-machine bread isn't as tasty as homemade (though it is better than store-bought).
  • Bread made in a bread machine takes about five minutes to put together. Homemade bread takes about 25 minutes. However, if you make four loaves at a time and freeze the extras, that cuts your hands-on time to just over six minutes per loaf. (She didn't note how the flavor of fresh bread out of a machine compares to that of a homemade loaf that's been frozen and thawed.) She also notes that using a food processor or an old-fashioned tool called a "bread bucket" to knead the dough can cut the time to about five minutes per loaf. "So," she concludes, "if you have a freezer to store extra loaves and have reasonable physical capabilities, a bread machine doesn't save time."
  • An oven takes about an hour to bake a loaf of bread. Running at 350 degrees, an electric oven will use about 2 kilowatt-hours (kWh) in that time. (Michael Bluejay confirms this figure.) However, baking four loaves at once cuts the energy usage down to half a kWh per loaf. A bread machine uses just slightly less than half a kWh to bake one loaf. So she concluded that using a bread machine, at the then-prevailing rate of 8 cents per kWh, will save you about a penny a loaf in fuel costs; if you use a gas oven, you'll save no money at all.
Now, some of the Frugal Zealot's calculations don't apply to our situation. For one thing, we don't have the freezer space to store more than one loaf of bread, so it isn't practical for us to bake more than two loaves at a time. Also, bread machines have become a bit more efficient; a recent test found that it takes about 0.35 kWh to produce a loaf on the quick bake cycle. And the price of both electricity and gas has gone up. Our latest bill from PSE&G shows that we are currently paying 17.3 cents per kWh for electricity, which works out to 6 cents per loaf baked in a machine. We pay $1.09 per therm for gas, and this chart from Best Buy shows that a gas oven uses about .112 therms to run for an hour at 350. But the upshot is the same: if we bake two loaves at a time, we spend roughly the same 6 cents per loaf as we would with a machine. So a bread machine is not a purchase that would pay for itself, ever, in reduced energy costs. We (or rather Brian) will have to spend more time on each loaf—about 12 minutes as opposed to 5—but it's time spent doing something he enjoys.

Of course, one of the nice things about deciding to bake our bread by hand is that the decision isn't a binding one. If we try it for a few months and find that we miss the convenience of being able to set up a loaf of bread overnight for the next day's breakfast, or have a batch of pizza dough kneading itself at home while we go out and run errands, we can always change our minds and get a machine. Or, instead, we might conclude that a better investment would be a full-sized food processor, one that can process bread dough (and will fit neatly in the space previously assigned to the bread machine). But we needn't be in any hurry to run out and buy anything now. And that fact in itself is actually very reassuring: the knowledge that, even though we used our old bread machine a lot, we can in fact get along without it—that this is one modern luxury that has not, for us, become a necessity.
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