For most of our married life, my husband and I haven’t bought any bread. We occasionally grab a loaf of something if it looks especially appetizing or it’s on sale for a competitive price, but in general, we bake all our bread.
Over the years, we’ve learned that bread-making is a gratifying way to cut your grocery bill. Our homemade bread costs us about half as much per loaf as we’d pay at the store, and it’s also tastier and healthier.
At first, I was worried baking from scratch would take too much time or effort. But we’ve found that it can easily become part of our weekly routine with just a little planning. We’ve learned several different ways to fit baking into a tight schedule and turn fresh-baked bread from a once-in-a-while luxury into a regular habit.
Ways to Bake Bread on a Busy Schedule
In a traditional cookbook, like “Joy of Cooking,” bread recipes involve several steps — mixing, kneading, proofing, and shaping — before you even get the bread into the oven. For most people, going through all those steps every time you need a loaf of bread isn’t practical.
Fortunately, you don’t have to do it that way. Several alternative methods make it possible to bake a healthy homemade loaf with just a few minutes of work — so you can enjoy cheap, tasty homemade bread, even on a busy schedule.
1. Baking in Batches
Baking bread the old-fashioned way is a lengthy process. You have to mix the dough, knead it, let it rise, punch it down and knead it a second time, then finally shape and bake it. From start to finish, it takes over three hours.
But most of that isn’t hands-on time. Once you’ve mixed and kneaded, you can set it aside to rise on its own. You don’t have to babysit it. Even while it’s baking, you can leave the room and do other things, as long as you’re around to take the bread out of the oven when the timer goes off. Overall, baking a loaf of bread only requires about 25 minutes of active work.
You can cut the time even more by making several loaves at once and freezing the ones you can’t use right away. Batch cooking works best if you have a separate freezer to store all those extra loaves, but even the freezer section in your fridge can hold one extra loaf. That way, you only have to find the time to bake once or twice per month. With less than half an hour of work, you can keep yourself stocked with homemade bread all month long.
One downside of baking bread in batches is that you only get to enjoy one loaf while it’s fresh. But bread keeps pretty well in the freezer as long as you wrap it snugly to keep it from drying out. A homemade loaf that’s been frozen and thawed still tastes closer to fresh bread than a preservative-filled mass-produced loaf.
According to Good Housekeeping, the best way to freeze homemade bread is to slice it first, then wrap individual slices in plastic wrap and store them in a freezer bag. Write the name of the type of bread on the bag so you can identify it without unwrapping. If you squeeze out as much air as you can from the bag without crushing the bread, slices will keep this way for up to eight months. You can thaw a slice by microwaving it for 15 to 30 seconds or, if you want toast, pop it directly into the toaster.
However, you can also freeze whole loaves. The best way to do it is to wrap the bread in foil first, then plastic wrap. To reheat the loaf, remove the plastic wrap and put it in a 400-degree F oven, still wrapped in foil, for 15 to 20 minutes. Then remove the foil and return it to the oven for a few minutes to crisp the crust.
Good Housekeeping only recommends freezing and reheating an entire loaf if you plan to eat the whole thing within one sitting. Otherwise, it will go “rock-solid stale.”
Pro tip: Before you go grocery shopping for everything you need to make homemade bread, download the Fetch Rewards and Ibotta apps. Each of these will allow you to save money on the different ingredients you’ll use.
2. Stand Mixer or Food Processor Mixing & Kneading
If your primary reason for baking is to have fresh-baked bread every time, batch baking isn’t ideal. However, you can cut down on the work of baking individual loaves by mixing your bread dough in a stand mixer or food processor. That cuts all the work of kneading by hand, so it only takes about five minutes of hands-on time to prepare a loaf of bread.
The method varies slightly, depending on what kind of machine you’re using. With a stand mixer, Taste of Home recommends mixing the dough with the beater attachment and then swapping the beater for a dough hook attachment. Run the mixer on low speed for about three minutes, or until it comes away cleanly from the sides of the bowl. Then keep going for another three or four minutes until the dough feels smooth and stretchy.
Using a food processor is even easier, according to America’s Test Kitchen. However, the editors say it isn’t the ideal tool for mixing most bread types. Its vigorous action can damage the gluten strands that give bread its light structure. It works best for pizza and other flatbreads that don’t need a light texture.
To mix dough in a food processor, put in the dry ingredients, start the machine, then add the liquid as it’s running. The editors recommend using a regular metal blade, not the dull plastic dough blades that come with some food processors. They also suggest using chilled water to counter the heat generated by the machine, which could deactivate your yeast.
As with the mixer, you want to knead until the dough is smooth and elastic. In a food processor, it takes only minutes for dough to reach this stage. Avoid overworking the dough, which will make your bread tough.
After machine-mixing, you can proof, shape, and bake it just as you would with hand-kneaded dough. You do less hands-on work that way, but you still have to wait several hours for your bread compared to pulling a ready-made loaf from the freezer.
3. Bread Machines
If making bread by hand even once per month is still too much work, a bread machine can make the job even easier. With this kitchen tool, making great bread is as easy as putting all the ingredients into a pan and pushing a few buttons. The machine takes care of kneading, proofing, and baking it, so you don’t need to tend to your bread dough throughout the day.
Better still, most bread machines have timers, so you can set them to have your bread ready whenever you want it. You can load up the machine before you go to bed at night and have a warm, fresh-baked loaf ready for breakfast in the morning. Plus, most machines also have a dough setting you can use if you need or prefer to shape before baking, such as when making pizza dough, focaccia, or cinnamon rolls.
It only takes only a few minutes to measure all the ingredients into the pan. You don’t need to knead or proof the dough or even preheat the oven. And you can use this technique to bake any yeast bread you can make by hand: whole-wheat bread, rye, pumpernickel, whole-grain, and even sourdough.
As for the cost, it’s actually a bit cheaper than baking bread by hand. According to The Spruce Eats, a bread maker uses between 500 and 1,000 watts of power, which adds up to between 0.5 and 1 kilowatt-hour (kWh) per hour of baking time. Baking the same loaf in a 2,400-watt electric oven would use 2.4 kWh. So using a machine helps you use less energy.
Bread machines come with a book of bread recipes designed for use with that particular machine. If you want to branch out, you can buy cookbooks devoted to bread machine recipes or find them online at cooking sites like Taste of Home or Allrecipes.
As you get used to how your bread machine works, you can adapt standard bread recipes to work in it, adjusting the amounts of flour and liquid as needed. According to King Arthur Baking, there’s no one-size-fits-all method for converting traditional bread recipes to machine form. However, there are a few helpful rules of thumb.
- Know Your Capacity. When adapting a bread recipe, it’s not the size of the loaf in pounds that matters. It’s the amount of flour. For instance, if the recipes in your bread machine’s manual call for three to four cups of flour, look for recipes with the same amount of flour.
- Add Ingredients in Order. If you look at the recipes in your manual, you’ll see that they consistently add ingredients in a specific order, such as liquids first, then flour, then other dry ingredients. When adapting a recipe, add the ingredients to the machine in the same order rather than the order specified in the original recipe.
- Use the Right Cycle. The basic bread cycle and medium crust setting work for most bread types. The quick cycle only works if you’re using rapid-rise yeast (a type of instant yeast) rather than active dry yeast. You can substitute two and a quarter teaspoons of instant yeast for a packet of active dry yeast in any recipe. The whole-wheat cycle is strictly for whole-grain breads.
Bread machines have two downsides: cost and space. Bread machines range in price from around $70 to over $300. If you use yours to make all your bread, you can save anywhere from $1 to $5 per loaf, depending on what kind you make. If you go through about a loaf per week, your new bread machine could pay for itself in a little over three months — or it could take more than six years.
You must also find space in your kitchen to store your new specialty appliance. A bread machine typically takes up about as much room as a small trash can.
4. Slow Cooker Breads
If you don’t want to make room in your kitchen for one more gadget, you might be able to bake bread with a device you already own. By adapting your bread recipes, you can make bread in a slow cooker.
Most slow cookers can reach about 200 degrees F on their high setting, which is the proper internal temperature for a loaf of bread. It’s not as fast as baking bread in the oven, but if you heat the dough long enough, it will bake all the way through.
Unlike a bread machine, a slow cooker can’t do the mixing and kneading for you. However, once you’ve done that part of the job by hand, you can set your dough in the cooker and bake it right away. Because it takes so long to bake, you don’t need to let it rise first.
A large ovular slow cooker can hold a regular bread pan tucked inside. With round cookers, you can bake the bread directly in the crock to produce the classic round shape called a boule. Lining the crock with parchment keeps the dough from sticking.
According to the Kitchn, it takes an average of two hours on high to bake a loaf of bread in a slow cooker. But baking times can range from one to three hours, so experiment to see what works for your particular model.
The best way to tell when your bread is done is to check its internal temperature, which should be between 190 degrees F and 200 degrees F. A finished loaf should be set on top — not spongy — and slightly browned on the bottom.
The Kitchn article warns that bread baked in a slow cooker is slightly different from oven-baked bread. The loaves come out a little flatter than usual, and they don’t develop a firm, chewy crust. If you prefer a softer-crusted bread, that’s a good thing. But if you like it a little crispier, you can give the loaf a quick zap under your oven’s broiler.
Baking bread in the slow cooker only requires about seven minutes of hands-on work per loaf. Like using a bread machine, slow-cooking your bread saves energy, making each loaf a few cents cheaper than one baked the traditional way. That makes slow-cooker bread a suitable choice for summertime, when you don’t want to heat your kitchen by running the oven.
According to the Kitchn, you can adapt just about any bread recipe to a slow cooker. Just get the dough ready, shape it into a loaf, and let the slow cooker do the rest. If you want recipes specifically designed and tested for slow cooker baking, Prevention offers half a dozen that should give you reliable results.
If you have an Instant Pot pressure cooker rather than a standard slow cooker, you can also find bread recipes that work with this tool. Some, like the olive oil-rosemary bread from Cooking Carnival, instruct you to use the Instant Pot for proofing the dough and transfer it to the oven for baking. Others, like the no-knead bread from Pressure Cook Recipes, use the Instant Pot for baking the bread as well.
In either case, this method is a bit different from slow-cooker baking. If you want to bake breads in your Instant Pot, stick to recipes specifically designed for that device.
5. No-Knead Breads
There’s one more way of baking your own bread that requires no special equipment at all — and almost no work. It’s called a no-knead bread.
With this method, popularized in the 2008 cookbook “Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day,” you mix a large batch of moist dough, leave it out for a couple of hours at room temperature to let it rise (a process called bulk fermentation), and store it in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks.
When you want fresh bread, pull off a section of dough, shape it into a loaf, give it about 40 minutes to rise (depending on your kitchen’s temperature), and then bake it. It takes about 15 minutes to mix the dough and only a minute or two to shape it. So each loaf only averages around five minutes to make.
The no-knead method has several advantages over other methods:
- No Special Equipment. You don’t need a bread machine or even a slow cooker. All you need is an oven, a refrigerator, a big bowl to store your dough, and a pan to bake it in.
- Less Work. There’s no need to spend 10 minutes kneading the dough every time you bake. You also don’t have to cover your unbaked loaves or set them aside in a draft-free place to rise. Just form a loaf, let it rest, and put it in the oven.
- Hard to Mess Up. With regular bread recipes, you’re supposed to keep an eye on your dough and take care not to let it rise too much. With the moist dough used in the no-knead method, extra rising time won’t do any harm.
- Ready When You Are. Because you mix the dough ahead of time, you can make a fresh loaf of bread whenever you feel like it. A small loaf can be ready in as little as an hour.
You can find a sample bread recipe using this method on the BreadIn5 website. It’s a basic white bread that requires only all-purpose flour, water, salt, and yeast. The recipe says to bake it on a bread stone or cast-iron pizza pan, but a cast-iron Dutch oven also works well. The finished bread has a chewy texture and a flavor that grows closer to sourdough the longer you’ve had the dough.
This site regularly posts other free recipes you can make with the no-knead method. Some examples include a holiday tea ring made with enriched dough and an easy sourdough starter you can combine with flour to make a basic sourdough bread.
There are even recipes that combine the no-knead method with the slow cooker method for the ultimate in minimal-effort baking. Examples include pull-apart monkey bread, a sweet brioche, and a gluten-free loaf.
If you like the idea of being a home baker but aren’t sure you can spare the time, remember it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing situation. You can bake exactly as often as you want. For example, you could whip up a loaf of homemade bread occasionally for a special occasion, such as Thanksgiving dinner. Or you could bake bread when you have plenty of free time and buy it when you’re on a tighter schedule.
Even if you can’t do all your own bread-making, it’s worth doing it whenever you have time. No store-bought loaf can provide the many benefits of home-baked bread. It’s cheap and flavorful, and knowing you made it yourself is a pleasure money can’t buy.