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Unlocking the secrets to making a perfect loaf of bread

Say the words "I'm thinking about getting a bread machine" and there are two responses you will, invariably, receive. The first is, "But haven't you tried the Lahey no-knead recipe?" The second as is, "Don't you know that bread machines suck?"

I will deal with these in order.

For those of you who haven't heard of it, the "Lahey no-knead" is a foolproof do-it-yourself artisan-style bread recipe created by New York baker Jim Lahey. Everything about the Lahey no-knead is perfect – the superbly crusty crust, the lofty crumb, the nutty flavour notes – except for one thing: It doesn't cut it in the kindergarten lunchroom.

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Five-year-olds aren't into channelling their inner French peasant or bragging about Daddy's pain rustique. They just want a sandwich bread that yields effortlessly to baby teeth, giving way to that precious inner layer of mild cheddar or apple butter. Oh, and they hate crust.

In other words, kids want sandwich bread. And they want a lot of it – toast at breakfast, sandwiches at lunch, grilled cheese on weekends. By the time all three of our kids were in school, our weekly grocery bill started flirting with $250, and a sizable chunk of that was bread. Like a lot of food Canadians eat, bread isn't as cheap as it used to be. According to Statistics Canada, over the last 10 years bread inflation has more then tripled regular inflation. A standard loaf that was $1.63 a decade ago now costs $2.86. And $2.86 doesn't get you much – just a rectangle of empty carbs known as white bread.

If you upgrade to supermarket multigrain, you're looking at $3.50, and even then you still haven't escaped industrial additives such as acetylated tartaric acid esters of mono and diglycerides and sodium stearoyl-2-lactylate.

The preferred option, for us at least, was a fresh-baked loaf from a local bakery. But they can cost anywhere from $4 to $6 (sometimes more), putting our monthly bread habit above the $80 threshold.

Was there a better bread solution? Was there some way I could get high quality, affordable bread into my children's diet that didn't involve cranking the oven to 450 F five nights a week?

These questions would lead me to what might be called the above-ground pool of kitchen appliances: the bread machine.

Which brings me, of course, to bread-machine prejudice number two: Bread machines suck. They're loud. The kneading paddle leaves a gaping hole in the bottom of your loaf. And they don't produce bread so much as a misshapen log of partially cooked dough that tastes like yeast.

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My parents were a case in point. They bought a bread machine, used it "maybe seven times," according to my mother, and gave it away.

But was the story really that simple? Like most bread machine nightmares, my parents' took place in the mid-1990s, when the bread machine trend exploded and flamed out like some overhyped penny stock. (The after-effects can be found in garage sales to this day.)

On the Internet, I discovered a bread machine counter-narrative, a community of holdouts who swore on the baking ability of these misunderstood contraptions.

They cautioned people against the popular but disastrous $60 bargain models with weak motors and glass lids that let out all the heat. But a bread machine, it seemed, really could make good bread – so long as it was a good bread machine.

According to online reviews and personal testimonials, some of the very best are made by Zojirushi – a Japanese maker of small kitchen appliances reputed for its exceptional rice cookers.

I zeroed in on a model called the BB-PAC20, a high-tech stainless steel beauty that promised rectangular loaves – perfect for sandwiches – multiple settings (including whole wheat and gluten-free), a quiet motor, diminutive kneading paddles that don't get stuck inside the loaf, and supplemental in-lid heating element that produces a perfectly browned crust.

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The cost? $325. Not my mother's bread machine.

On a Wednesday in February, I lifted a gleaming BB-PAC20 out of its box. Four hours later, the house was filled with the soothing scent of fresh bread and I was pulling a bread knife through a loaf that was still warm to the touch.

More accurately, I was slicing through a misshapen log of half-cooked wet dough that tasted like yeast and had as much crust as a just-peeled banana. There was a half-hour of upbeat denial. "Isn't it fascinating how dense real bread actually is," I commented idiotically to my wife as I chewed a wad of glutinous starch. Not even the toaster could make this stuff edible.

The next three loaves were, if anything, worse. One was so dry that, as I bit into it, little beads of yeast bounced off my plate and rolled onto the floor.

And then I discovered a recipe called "Walter Sands' Favorite Bread" and my life changed forever. Next to the water measurement appeared the following words: "more in the winter, less in the summer."

Very quickly, the cause of my concrete-like yeast loaf became apparent: inadequate hydration. Also, due to stupidity and laziness, I was avoiding recipes that call for fat, which makes a loaf softer and moister.

I started adding in butter or canola oil, sometimes both. The baking gods smiled upon me. My bread was light and fluffy. As the days became weeks, I began mixing in whole wheat, and experimenting with my kids' favourite bread, challah.

It's been two months since I started using the BB-PAC20. In that time, it has cooked around 40 loaves. Is it the best bread I've ever tasted? No. But it is good. Two nights ago, I conducted a blind tasting: my challah versus the one from the local bakery. My daughter and sister-in-law declared mine to be the winner – it tasted more "real." My wife said they were equal. Best of all, not only was my challah one-third whole wheat, it was cheaper.

Way cheaper. If you buy flour wholesale, $15 will get you a 20-kilogram sack of untreated bread flour made by P&H, the country's largest Canadian-owned miller. A standard loaf of sandwich bread was running me 76 cents (that includes the cost of 0.34 kilowatt-hours of electricity). A loaf of challah, thanks to the eggs, milk and butter, was coming in at $1.90. It all worked out to an average savings of about $3 per loaf.

Already, I've saved $120. Not once have my kids said, "Daddy, we miss stearoyl-2-lactylate." Even my wife – the woman who rolled her eyes at the ice cream maker, stand mixer, meat grinder, yanagiba sashimi knife, immersion blender and pasta machine – is a convert.

All of which has me wondering: Does Zojirushi make an above-ground pool?

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