Artisan breads are typically worth every penny of their premium price, but what about their gadget counterparts? The Breville Custom Loaf ($299.99*, breville.com) is about as fancy a breadmaker as I've come across, making it an exciting purchase for a carbo-lover like myself. But is it worth the splurge?
As its name suggests, the Custom Loaf sets itself apart through its customization features, which allow you to program any recipe from start to finish, specifying times and temperatures for each step along the way. Not only does it give you the freedom to go way outside the boundaries of their recipe book (a nifty starting point that offers suggestions for the machine's various presets) but it also offers the ability to fine-tune for high altitude, flour types, and other recipe tweaks.
Not every baker will feel the need to go the extra mile. This decision, to me, is much like whether to buy an Artisan or Professional Kitchenaid: maybe your initial needs aren't going to make use of the appliance's full scope, but if you're making a lifelong investment, it's a good idea to assume your interests will also grow with time.
Even if you don't start customizing recipes right away, the more you bake bread, the more you will want to, and then you'll be happy to have that ability without having to buy a whole new machine.
For your honeymoon phase, the presets that the Custom Loaf offers are extensive, with options for quick-rise, gluten-free, whole wheat, crusty, sweet and yeast-free breads in sizes ranging 1-2.5 lbs. There are selections for light, medium and dark crusts, and settings that knead dough for pizza and pasta. Since the paddle and temperature settings lend themselves to making jam as well, there's an option for that, giving you the perfect accoutrement to your fresh bread; for store bought or previously made doughs, there's also a bake only setting.
Overall, the machine yields consistent results, with only one collapsed loaf over months of testing. The baking tray is a nice rectangular shape, and the paddle folds down at the start of the baking phase to prevent the typical breadmaker indentation. I like that the bake tray is dishwasher safe and lifts in and out, making it easy to prevent (and clean) messes. But perhaps my favorite feature is the fruit and nut dispenser built into the lid, which releases and mix-ins at just the right point in the knead cycles to get fully distributed but not dismembered.
Essentially, this is a one-touch, set it and forget it machine. Select your preferences, touch the start button (or set the timer for up to 13 hours ahead), and wait for the aromas to start wafting. But if you want to check on things midway, there's a pause button that comes in handy: not only can you check for texture before the bake phase, but you can also re-shape the dough into braided or roll formations pre-bake. The clear display, something many comparable machines don't share to this extent, is extremely user-friendly and intuitive, in keeping with Breville's sharp design aesthetic.
The machine's only downfall, perhaps, is that some of its parts are fragile. The miniature lightbulb that allows you to watch the bread bake (an oven light, so to speak), blew out on my very first use, and while the machine comes with a one-year warranty, replacing my light bulb without trading out the machine is currently impossible. Surely, over time, this is something Breville will fix, as they seem to be growing quickly as a name in kitchen appliances.
*This product was supplied as a press sample, courtesy of Breville. In no way did the sample compromise our unbiased opinion.