Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Credit Crunch Aromatherapy

I think most people would agree that the smell of freshly baked bread is probably one of the nicest smells on earth. It’s inviting, warming and comforting all in the same moment. There is nothing like walking through the door of your home and experiencing that wonderful smell. But in today’s busy world, that is a pretty rare occurrence.

Baking bread has slipped, along with things like knitting and needlepoint, into the realm of those things most people rarely do. Baking bread takes time and patience; waiting while the bread rises, not just once, but often twice. Then you have to hang around while it bakes. Who on earth has time to do that these days?

Actually, pretty much everyone does – with a bit of help. You see, although there is nothing like a loaf of bread made “the old fashioned way”, if time prevents you from doing this, you really should invest in a bread machine.

The bread machines of today are a far cry from the ones first marketed in Japan in 1986 that came to North America about a year later. Although they do still have their distinctive shape, loaves made in bread machines taste better and have a better texture than the ones machines used to make years ago. Although the cycles on the bread machines can be fairly long, the amount of labour involved in making bread in a machine is minimal. It only takes about five minutes to measure the ingredients and put them in the machine. Once you have got them in there, shut the lid and turned the machine on, it takes care of itself for the rest of the bread making cycle, requiring absolutely no input from you. Today’s machines also offer more options in terms of what they will do. My new bread machine even automatically releases any fruit or nuts I might want to add to my bread so I no longer have to listen out for the “raisin beep”, to know when it is time to add anything extra. Once the bread is baked, the only effort required is to remove it from the machine to cool. From making dough and baking quick breads to whipping up something that borders on artisanal, today’s bread machines are a domestic boon.

You can make many different types of bread at home. Years ago, you could only get two types of bread flour in the supermarket – white or brown. Now most supermarkets carry a much larger selection – from malty granary flour to crunchy seeded flours. You can even buy organic and speciality flours from small producers without having to travel miles and miles. My local supermarket specialises in several special flours from small producers, my favourite of which is a Stoneground Rye flour that makes the most amazing loaves.

The other wonderful thing about making your own bread is the money it saves. Often when I run into the supermarket for ”just a loaf of bread”, I come out with so much more than that. I’m tempted by the special offers and come out with things I don’t really need, having spent four or five times what I intended to. Not only that, but the cost of making your own bread is far cheaper than buying it. For about half the price of buying one loaf already baked, you can buy a bag of flour that will make two to three loaves.

I decided to try an experiment a few weeks ago to see just how much money I could save if I did not buy any loaves of bread and made all my bread in the machine instead. I normally buy about four loaves of bread per week, two white and two whole grain and I might also buy a fifth loaf of something a little bit special, either a fruit loaf or an artisanal loaf like a French stick or ciabatta bread. During the two week experiment, I baked all my own bread in the bread machine – every single loaf.

I was able to fit in baking the bread either in the early evening, or in some cases I would use a “rapid bake” cycle that allowed me to make my bread during the day. I really did not find it an onerous process, and estimate that making my own bread took me the sum total of about a half an hour’s work each week. So I was not time poor and I was definitely finding myself saving the pennies.

In fact, the results were quite shocking. After a two week period, I calculated that by making my own bread I was saving in excess of £5 (that is about $7) per week. When I multiplied that by 52 weeks, I realised that baking my own bread regularly would save me the equivalent of about 350 US dollars a year. That is some serious dough. (You’ll have to forgive me the pun, I just couldn’t resist.)

The best thing was we used the entirety of every loaf, not one slice was thrown out. Store bought bread does not have as long a shelf life as many other products and due to this, and the fact that we all like different kinds of loaves, I would often find myself throwing away more ends of leftover store bought loaves than I would like as well. By baking as and when I needed it, I was saved from the tyranny of “use by” dates and pretty well eliminated any bread waste in our house. I also became a lot more confident in terms of the loaves I baked, and by the end of the second week, my family were enjoying a larger variety of breads made with some very interesting flours, including spelt and even a gluten free version. And before you start to worry about our waistlines, we were not eating any more bread than we had been before, as we were consuming the same number of slices as we did when we were eating store bought bread.

Baking your own bread can also be healthier than buying it. Store bought bread is notorious for containing more salt than it needs to. You do need salt in a loaf for it to raise properly, but you do not need the amount that mass produced bread contains. Most home baking recipes for bread do not contain that much salt, and I make a practice of using less than is called for anyway. In fact, not one of the loaves I bake contains more than a quarter of a teaspoon of salt, which is about a quarter of the amount most store bought breads contain.

Buying a bread machine could very well change your life. For a relatively small investment (certainly much less than you will save over the course of a year), you can have hot, fresh and healthy bread on your table and save yourself money in the bargain. I even found it help me to avoid wasting food as not only did I never have to throw away stale bread but I also found recipes for bread that allowed me to use up other leftovers, from apple juice (in a yummy apple cinnamon bread) to cheese (in a cheddar and ale loaf that was utterly delicious).

Although we are all watching our pennies in the credit crunch, a bread machine is a very wise investment. Buy the best you can afford and enjoy the fruits of your labours, safe in the knowledge that you are saving yourself money, avoiding waste and even being healthier in the bargain. You will also be treating treating your taste buds and enjoying some serious aromatherapy!

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