Here’s a challenge: can you tell the difference between handmade and machine made bread? Handmade means no mixers, no dough hooks, and no electronic devices of any kind until it’s time to pop those risen loaves or rolls in the oven. If taste buds can’t tell a significant difference, why would anyone choose an old-fashioned technique to do a job?
I had a bread machine for years and used it when I taught so I could come home to the comforting aroma of baking bread that accompanied the meal simmering in my crockpot. It was a way to produce home-cooked food without having to eat European style at 8 or 9 p.m.
Whether it was my imagination or not, I thought handmade bread tasted better, so when I had time, I skipped the plug-in contraption and learned to crank out a pan of rolls or golden loaves nearly as fast as I could measure ingredients into the mixing bucket and push buttons. Along the way, I discovered hand mixing and kneading reduced stress that knotted my shoulders and made my head ache. The fragrance was a bonus, but bread machines provide that so it can’t factor into the debate.
Recently, a friend and I quibbled over the merits of hand vs. machine made. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. You get the smell, taste, and freshness both ways. What you don’t find with appliance-made bread is the sensory delight of combining flour, oil, eggs, water, sugar, salt, and yeast into dough.
The other day I mixed five cups of flour into a soppy yeast sponge with my fingers and then kneaded the result until it was ready to rise. Creating that recipe, I realized I relish this aspect of bread making. It returns me to those wondrous childhood days when friends and I spent hours mixing dirt and water to a perfect consistency to manufacture loaf and pie-shaped mud confections to bake on broiling summer sidewalks and driveways.
I should’ve recognized the warning signs of becoming an artisan baker even then because my companions always tired of this activity before I did. I’ve exchanged gooey, thick mud for sticky dough squishing between my fingers, but that sensation of preparing ingredients to the perfect consistency and then forming them into shapes ready for hot cement or oven is the satisfying part of both activities.
The good news is my stress-busting, adult bread-making smells much better than the muddy concoctions of my youth. In addition, dirt pies never make it in the door let alone to the table when you talk about flavor or sanitation. Bread rules over mud pies any day of the week.
In truth, it doesn’t matter that you use a bread machine or Kitchen Aide mixer to crank out a warm, crusty loaf. No matter how you make it, you produce that yeasty aroma that says all is well with the world and fresh flavor you won’t find in plastic-bag-encased-slices on grocery store shelves.
The real difference is that hand-made bread allows bakers to experience the evolution of dough from sticky glop to an elastic mound that sounds like a baby’s behind when patted. For those who savor touch as well as flavor in culinary creations, we’re compelled to dig in to our elbows to fully enjoy the flavors that satisfy our stomachs and spirits.