I'd like to try my hand at baking my own bread. Do I need a bread maker to get decent bread? Are there any advantages to using a bread maker vs. my normal oven?
You absolutely don't need a bread maker for good bread. They have been making bread for at least 22,000 years and I promise, in the vast majority of those, having a bread maker would have gotten you stoned as a witch (if you had electricty to run it). However, a good bread maker will vastly cut down on the time you have to spend making bread. Basically, bread by hand requires a few hours and lot of physical kneading to develop the gluten that gives bread it's structure and in a bread machine, you dump the ingredients in, turn it on and walk away, then come back and enjoy some fresh bread.
i agree that you do not need a bread machine, but that it does make things vastly easier for the person new to breadmaking.
BUT... you also do not need to do a ton of kneading. i've been recently into the "no knead" type of peasant breads, and they are rocking my world. this is the recipe that started it all. this is very very easy, but if you're unsure, by all means start with a bread machine and move up to this: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/08/dining/081mrex.html
one last suggestion: don't spend a lot of dough (haha) on a bread machine. there are plenty of perfectly good machines to be found in thrift stores. i recommend the Breadman brand if you can find one -- i used one for 8 years, and liked it so much i picked up a second one as a backup in a thrift for $5.
Instead of investing in a bread machine, which I own and never use, invest in the resources to become confident with your dough. I seriously cannot say too much about The Bread Baker's Apprentice. If you own a spoon, a bowl, and an oven (ideally also a pizza stone, but a sheet pan will do in a pinch), you can start making bread with this book that is 10 times better than anything that has ever come out of my bread machine. It is not for everyone, however. Many of the loaves require two days, some require three. For something simpler, a family member who has sworn by her bread machine for years now swears by Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day for almost equal convenience and much better flavor.
I have a stand mixer, but sometimes skip the kneading by dough hook, which is simple as stated, for the joy of kneading by hand. You have no idea how relaxing it is to spend fifteen minutes working dough after a long day of work if you haven't tried it yet. And in my mind little in the kitchen tops the feeling of shaping a boule or dinner roll into a neat, tight ball.
What a bread machine will get you is convenience. The only time I would consider using one is if I wanted to be able to throw ingredients into my bread machine in the morning, set it on a time bake setting, and come home to warm bread at night. Even though making bread by hand is not very hands-on intensive, you do need a few hours to catch it after the various rise times.
Bread machines only make loaves the shape of the container. If you want to make a boule, baguette, flatbread, etc, it can't do it. They can be used for mixing the dough, but then you have to finish it by hand, so at that point, you're only using it for mixing and kneading the dough.
But there's other stuff that can do the kneading, if you're just trying to skip that step. I'd invest in something that can serve other purposes, too:
A stand mixer. Does a great job kneeding, although if you put in too much, it can climb out of the bowl when you're not looking.
A food processor with a dough blade. Doesn't hold as much as most stand mixers, but it'll get the job done, and it can deal with really stiff doughs, like pasta. You can even use the regular metal blade for really wet doughs, like brioche.
For quick breads (all chemically leavened breads, such as banana bread and soda bread), you don't need to knead them, so you just need a mixing bowl and something to bake in or on. And there's the no-knead recipes. For years I've been making a great ham and cheese yeast bread that's basically just stir & dump in the pan.
I haven't used one before, so I can't say they are not worth it, but I got good bread without one, so you don't really need it. I think a oven stone is a better idea.
First: Don't be scared to knead by hand. It doesn't take that much effort, is relaxing and, if you don't like it, you can use the NYT recipe linked by franko. Or any variation, like the 15 second kneading recipe that also replaces part of the water with beer, for better taste. Also, you don't need a dutch oven. Anything with a lid (like pyrex) that can go in the oven should work.
What I really recommend you is a oven stone and a peel. They're not really necessary, but for 50$ you'll see a big improvement, even when the dough is not as good, rested or proofed as it should (I'm not recommending you to try that, but I've been in a hurry and the stone has really surprised me saving the day).
If you don't want to invest money yet, try the NYT recipe or one for focaccia
Sure a bread machine isn't needed, but it's still very convenient. Kneading yourself is fine if you do bread once in a while, but we use our bread machine every day, so kneading would still represent a lot of time.
Also there are so many recipes for bread machines available, so it's quite easy to get a different bread every day. All it takes is 5 minutes to put the ingredients together, and the bread is done on its own during the night.
I've used three different bread makers over the last 20 or so years. I make all our family's sandwich bread, and sometimes I make raisin cinnamon bread as a treat. We are a family of 5 with 3 now teenage boys, and I average a loaf a day. Those are all big 2lb loaves.
Long ago, before I had a bread maker, I made a loaf by hand. It takes a lot of time. The actual kneading is not itself all that much time, but when you include the time you have to let it rise between punch-downs, and then bake it and be there to take it out of the oven, it adds up to a several hours you have to be available, without much time between tasks to get out of the house to do much of anything. There is no way I could do that every day to make a loaf every day. I could probably save time by doing two loaves at a time, but still. No thanks.
The people I know who often make bread by hand are singles with no children living at home. If I was a single with no children living with me, I might do it too.
On the other hand, bread makers are limiting. If you want to get creative, you have to use it only to make the dough, then take the dough out to work with it. But even that saves a lot of time. Some suggest using a mixer for making the dough, but will your mixer pause for the rising times, and then continue briefly for the required punch-downs between rising times? If not, and you have to be there for the punch-downs, then the mixer is only really saving you the actual kneading time, which isn't a big savings.
Even if you only use it for making dough, a bread maker can save you a lot of time.
You might want to start with an inexpensive model to see if breadmaking is for you, but once you've decided you're going to make your bread that way, I'd recommend a model that allows you to customize the breadmaking course. That's one reason I use a Zojirushi BB-PAC20. I never used its built-in courses. Instead I've programmed one as follows:
Knead: 30 minutes
Rise #1: 90 minutes
Rise #2: 70 minutes
Rise #3: 40 minutes
Bake: 60 minutes
Then I let it sit for at least 15 minutes (and ideally less than an hour) so that the loaf doesn't deform, which often happens if you remove it immediately because it's so molten inside.
Then I put it in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours before slicing. When cold it slices much more cleanly. If we're in a hurry, we skip that step, which mangles the bread a little.
90 + 70 + 40 = 200 minutes is a LOT of rising time, more than you'd get with any built-in courses on any bread maker. It's more than double the rising time of the BB-PAC20's standard course. But importantly, more rising time means more time for the yeast to make the bread taste delicious. It makes a significant difference in my experience. If you do use a built-in course, I'd suggest avoiding the fast course. That may look good in the product description but it really compromises the flavor. The BB-PAC20's fast course has only 55 minutes of rising time.
BTW there's a lot of moaning and groaning out there about the paddle holes. Some people remove the paddles right before baking. My feeling is, good lord, it's just a sandwich. Paddle holes don't affect the flavor. It reminds me of toddlers refusing to eat the crust of the bread.
Good luck, and happy baking!
There's already a bunch of good answers here. But here's mine:
Short answer: No, not at all. But it is super-super convenient.
We use a bread maker to produce a single loaf of our "plain" bread (wholemeal wheat with rye) every day. Bread-maker loaves have the chewy/crusty bit around the mixer paddle, and a weird shape. They are not the best loaves ever.
We put the bread ingredients into the maker while preparing dinner. The machine is scheduled to bake overnight (if you're up at 02:00, the kitchen smells wonderful). 99% of the time, the next morning it's finished and pretty good. Sometimes it fails for an unknown reason, but of those 1% fails, most are because you forgot the yeast (doh!).
But! I still make breads by hand, because I really enjoy it. Especially for sweet breads, focaccias, and differently shaped buns. Sometimes for a big batch of pizza dough, I will put it in the bread maker and just run a kneading cycle.
If you've never made bread before, I would make a few batches before deciding on a machine. At least to see how easy it is.
( The biggest problem will then be the accumulation of bread-making books. )
No "kneed" for a bread maker! You can also make bread by using a dutch oven. An example and recipe can be found here - https://www.lecreuset.com/dutch-oven-bread/LCR-2091.html
The bread is easy and delicious!