UPDATE MAY 2012: Sadly, Panasonic's SD-254, SD-255, SD-256 and SD-257 models have all been discontinued but the good news is that the current model, the Panasonic SD-2501WXC Automatic Breadmaker with Nut & Raisin Dispenser & Gluten Free Program continues Panasonic's fine record of products in this area. This old review may still be interesting, however!

My rating: Five Stars
It's hard to find a negative comment about Panasonic bread making equipment. The long-established SD253 model is the one which almost every comparative review named as the best buy for some considerable time. Panasonic replaced this (June 2007) with the SD255 and for anyone looking for a kitchen bread maker, this remains the model to buy.

Panasonic have four similar models, the SD254, SD255, SD256 and SD257. The differences are that the SD255 and SD257 have an automatic dried fruit and nut dispenser (which saves adding them by hand during baking), and a rye bread mode. Other than that, the models are similar, and the generations share the same instruction manuals.

Panasonic SD255 bread maker out of the boxOK, here's my SD255, freshly delivered by the parcel man. At the time, the machine was £99 everywhere, so I went for Amazon's generally reliable delivery and free shipping. There's a direct link down at the bottom of this page if you want to do the same. The breadmaker is simply packed, and comes with the only accessories you really need, a measuring cup and spoon, as well as a pretty decent 36-page A4 instruction manual, which is in English throughout, rather than being a multilingual effort. A big tick for Panasonic there.

The manual takes you through the breadmaking process very straightforwardly, explaining the different ingredients and the many alternatives you can use. It's a nice half-hour's reading if you can restrain yourself from plugging the unit in and just getting on with it. But making bread with these sort of breadmaking machines is so absurdly easy that the manual's authors manage to outline the whole process in a two-page spread. Put the blade in the pan. Measure the ingredients and add them. Select the bread type on the front panel. Select the loaf size, crust colour, and start time. Press the start button. Wait 2-5 hours for the bread to bake. Take it out. And that's it.

The display and control buttons are better laid-out than the old SD253 model which won every group test hands-down in the past. There are six buttons laid out in a row (Select, Option, Size, Crust, Timer and Start) and you just have to go through each, in that order, selecting the desired setting each time. The buttons are clearly labelled in English, with no cryptic icons or symbols - it really looks as if a professional ergonomist has specified the entire operating process, which couldn't be clearer.

Panasonic SD255 bread makerDoes it make decent bread? It does. With a bit of trial and error, you will get bread at least as good as the better supermarket stuff, with the added bonus of being able to take it out of the bread maker warm. Smells good already, doesn't it?

If your domestic arrangements are as undisciplined as ours, a breadmaker may save you a lot of money too. Several times a month, a certain member of our household will look at the empty bread bin in the morning and declare: "we're out of bread - I'll pop into the supermarket on the way home tonight". By that evening, the bread bin does indeed have fresh content - but alongside are two or three carrier bags full of the stuff which supermarkets are so clever at getting you to buy when you pop in for something totally unrelated. Seems ridiculous, but we all know how it happens. Since having a breadmaker, we've actually cut down on our trips to the supermarket and our opportunities for temptation. The machine probably paid for itself inside three or four months.

Panasonic SD255 breadmakerSo, what sort of bread can the Panasonic SD-255 produce? There are seven main baking modes: "basic", whole wheat, rye, french, italian, sandwich and gluten-free. Within each of these, however, there are many recipe variations, and you're likely to come up with your own preferred ones too. The user guide gives seven pages of recipes, from a plain white loaf to pesto and pine nut or tomato focaccia loaves. It makes it look simple to throw in anything from passata to cep mushrooms, and indeed it is.

Don't forget that breadmakers like this do a great job of making dough too - if you master the pizza base recipe, you'll never buy ones from the supermarket again. Finally, there's a "bake only" mode if you want to use the machine to bake many types of cake. By this point however, as with many modern kitchen appliances, you probably need to take a step back and ask "what's wrong with doing the traditional way, like using an oven?"

Panasonic SD255 finished loafAs a practical test for beginners, we gave the Panasonic SD255 to an experienced cook who had baked plenty of bread by hand before, but never used a breadmaking machine. We gave her a packet of bread mix - just to really make things simple - and the instruction manual. Our cook, by her own admission, isn't the best at reading technical manuals. But she knows a good loaf of bread when she sees one.

The good news is that the whole process generated just one observation: "is that it?". Reading the instructions took 5 minutes, and preparing the mix took about 1 minute. Our cook instinctively went for the "quick bake" mode, so the loaf was ready just two hours later. And the results weren't bad at all! Our cook didn't think the loaf quite lived up to the standards of proper handmade bread, but it was loads better than wrapped supermarket loaves. Bearing in mind we used packet mix ingredients, she was reasonably impressed. The crust was a little chewy, and the outside unevenly coloured (although we subsequently solved this deficiency), but the bread itself was very pleasant, and the loaf size sensible. With finer ingredients and more considered baking techniques, our cook thought she could do even better with this bread maker - and was keen to try.

I do not think it's worth investigating any further - go buy this one with confidence. The SD255 was awarded "Best Buy" status in the UK's Which? magazine in 2009. There are lots more reviews at Amazon - follow the link below. If it's available for under £120, grab yourself a little gem. Five Stars CR

UPDATE: Reviews on the SD-2501 at Amazon:

Panasonic SD-2501WXC Automatic Breadmaker with Nut & Raisin Dispenser & Gluten Free Program



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