Your bread machine does not have a brain! A timer and a thermostat maybe, but no brain. I know a lot of people buy a bread machine hoping it will magically make the perfect loaf of bread with the press of a button. You might get lucky and it happens…..if you use the right recipe, and the humidity is the same as wherever the recipe-developer resided, and you measured your flour in the same way the recipe-developer did, and the room temperature where your bread machine sits is exactly the same as theirs was, etc.
Making bread is an art, not an exact science. Sometimes you have to make adjustments based on the environment, the ingredients you use, and the finished product you desire. Knowing when, what, and how much requires experience, a sixth sense, and sometimes, good luck.
Whether you are using your bread machine as a mix-knead-rise appliance (like I do), or you want to mix, knead, rise, and bake in your machine, my #1 piece of advice is to open the lid and check out the dough inside. Do this 5 minutes or so after starting the machine and then again after the machine has been kneading 5-10 minutes. If you walk by 15 or 20 minutes into the cycle, open the lid and peek to see if all is well. The only time you do not want to open the lid is in the middle of the rising period as you will be letting some heat escape, thus prolonging the rising time.
The goal is for the dough to stick to the side, then pull away cleanly as it kneads. The dough in the video below is the perfect consistency for the average loaf of yeast bread. It’s pliable, shiny, smooth, and not too sticky.
Is your dough too dry? Does it refuse to form a ball, or does it make a ball that slaps loudly against the side of the pan? Add a tablespoon of liquid, give it a chance to mix up for a couple minutes, and check again. Keep doing this until the dough looks right.
Is the dough too wet? Does it look gooey and sticky? Add a tablespoon of flour at a time, watching until you see the dough stick to the sides and then pull away cleanly. Allow a couple minutes for the dough to incorporate the flour before adding more. Remember that some doughs need to be quite wet, like brioche or ciabatta. If you are a beginner, I would avoid those kinds of recipes until you have dependable success with a simple loaf.
Another time I recommend you peek inside the machine is at the end of the dough cycle. I will address that topic in an upcoming post.
p.s. If you are new to the bread machine world and want to increase your chances of success, may I suggest you start with a bread machine mix from the grocery store or use a basic recipe from the manual that came with your bread machine. Or, you could use one of my bread machine recipes formulated to be mixed and kneaded in a bread machine, then removed from the pan, shaped, and baked in a conventional oven. Check out my recipe index for lots of possibilities.