Nineteen eighty-eight's hottest new kitchen appliance, the automatic bread maker, wasn't the brainchild of an American inventor-entrepreneur with a flair for electronics and a love of fine food. Would that it were. No, this clever device was conceived and manufactured in Japan. And the Japanese don't even eat bread.

Discouraging? Yes and no. Yes if you're plagued with worries about the trade deficit and the decline of Yankee ingenuity. No if you can put such global concerns behind you and give in to the thought of having good, homemade bread in your kitchen without working for it. The fact is, these electronic kitchen slaves, reminiscent of Woody Allen's "Sleeper," actually perform as advertised; we found that they turn out credible bread with practically no effort on the part of the user -- except perhaps in paying for the machine.

Operating them is the last word in simplicity. Using the recipes that come with the machine, or adapting your own, you literally dump the ingredients into a nonstick pot inside the machine, press a few buttons and walk away. Four hours later you remove and invert the pot, and a loaf of freshly baked bread drops out. Thanks to built-in timers, you can even set these machines the night before and they will deliver just-baked bread the moment your alarm goes off. Cleanup is easy: wipe the inside of the pot with a damp sponge and the job is done. Any kid who's gotten through Dick and Jane should have no trouble.

How does the bread machine work its magic? There are minor differences from brand to brand, but the basic mechanisms are the same. At the bottom of the nonstick pot is a dough paddle, analogous to the blade in a blender, and at the side is a dough hook, which performs a "grabbing" function. When the cycle begins, the paddle and hook work together to mix the ingredients into dough and then to knead it.

Once the basic mixing is done, the machine cycles through a series of alternate kneading and rising periods. Then comes a period of warmed rising, in which the heating element that surrounds the nonstick pot warms the dough just enough to promote full rising. After another quick knead, the heating element turns on full force, and the baking cycle begins. When it's over, the machine beeps to tell you the bread is ready.

The bread made in these machines is remarkably consistent from batch to batch because of the precisely controlled timing and temperatures. And it generally has an excellent crisp, brown crust because the heating element surrounds the nonstick pot, which is a good heat conductor. It also has that lovely, rough-textured, irregular look of homemade bread.

But the shape of the loaf may take some getting used to. In some of the machines it's cylindrical, and even the flat-sided loaves tend to be as high as they are wide. Still, we think most people won't object to the odd shape.

But what about just making bread the old-fashioned way? Granted, if you have the time and if you're a good baker, you can beat these machines hands down in bread quality and quantity. And granted, when you use a machine you miss out on the therapeutic benefits of punching dough with your own hands. But if you're like most of us -- if you lead a helter-skelter life without much free time -- one of these machines may be the only realistic way to have fresh, home-baked bread on a regular basis instead of as an occasional treat.

Selecting a machine can be a little confusing. The features vary from brand to brand, and the same machine is often marketed under different names. As far as we've been able to figure out in comparison shopping for our own machine and in researching this article, three basic products are available, all manufactured in Japan and sold under several brand names.

The Panasonic is available under its own name through the Sharper Image catalogue and in its retail stores as well as at Bloomingdale's, Reliable Home Appliances and Circuit City. It's also available as "The Bread Bakery" under the National brand name in the Williams-Sonoma catalogue and local stores.

The Hitachi is available at Hecht's, Macy's, Kitchen Bazaar and the China Closet.

The machine made by the Funai company is sold under the Welbilt name at the White Flint Bloomingdale's and, under the name Dak, by Dak Industries, a mail-order electronics house in Canoga, Calif. (telephone 1-800-325-0800).

Here's a rundown on what you can expect from each of the brands.

Loaf Size and Shape

The Welbilt/Dak produces a cylindrical loaf that's the largest from the three machines -- 6 1/2 inches in both diameter and height. Both the Hitachi and Panasonic/Bread Bakery produce what amounts to a five-inch cube.

Dough-Only Setting

All the brands can be set to turn themselves off immediately before the baking cycle would normally start. This lets you make dough for rolls, pizza, bagels, etc., in the machine, then shape it according to your recipe and bake in the oven.

Timer

All the brands have this feature, too, which enables you to dump in the ingredients and set the machine to go on at a specified time. That way you can wake up to warm bread in the kitchen (and a marvelous aroma in the house). Note that you can't use the timer to make breads that call for perishable ingredients such as eggs, because they shouldn't stand for long periods of time at room temperature.

Cool-Down Fan

Only the Hitachi and Welbilt/Dak have this. In these machines, when the baking is over cool air is blown over the loaf. Without this feature, you have to take the hot bread out of the machine immediately after baking to prevent the crust from getting steamy and soft. And without the cool-down fan the timer is a lot less useful -- you'd have to jump out of bed the instant the bread machine's final beeper goes off in order to preserve your crust.

Solid Ingredients Signal

Only the Hitachi and Welbilt/Dak have this. If you're using a recipe that calls for solid ingredients in the bread (such as raisins or chocolate chips), they shouldn't be added until right before the baking cycle begins or they might get crushed during kneading. The Hitachi and Welbilt/Dak machines give you a beep signal when it's time to add the solid ingredients, then they give the dough a final quick mixing before baking begins.

Crust Control

This is a feature only on the Welbilt/Dak machines, which enables you to dial in the crust darkness you prefer. It really works, and it gives you more control over the product than the other brands do.

French & Sweet Bread Settings

Also available only on the Welbilt/Dak are special settings for crisp-crusted French bread and for recipes that call for a lot of sugar. We presume these settings work by altering the machine's time and temperature programs, although this isn't explained in the owner's manual.

Transparent Top

The Panasonic/Bread Bakery has an opaque top. The other two allow you to look inside and watch the bread-making process, which we think adds to the fun -- the Hitachi uses a small glass window in the top, and the Welbilt/Dak machines have domed glass lids. There's a drawback to the glass dome: the top crust on the Welbilt/Dak bread tends to be thin and soft, possibly because the glass isn't sufficiently heat-reflective. But with a good, crisp crust all around the sides and bottom of the cylindrical loaf, that's not a serious problem.

After comparing the features of all three machines, we chose the Welbilt/Dak because of its larger loaf, the crust control and the French and sweet bread settings. We've been very pleased with the bread's texture, and with the machine's ability to produce a really thick, chewy crust.

A strong second choice would have been the Hitachi, which has the extra advantage of being the most compact of the three.

We would not have selected the Panasonic because of its lack of cooling fan -- for us, having to rush in and pluck the bread out of the machine the instant it's finished would have been too big a drawback.

If you're thinking about buying a bread machine, here are a few thoughts to keep in mind:

It makes only one small loaf at a time, over a four-hour period. If you started the machine first thing in the morning, you still couldn't get more than two loaves by dinner time.

Although you can adapt your favorite bread recipes for the machine simply by adjusting the quantities to conform with the recipes given in the machine's instruction book, remember that the times and temperatures programmed into the machine are based on using yeast as the leavening agent. So don't plan on making soda breads in the machine.

The recipe books that come with the machines apparently are not equal. For example, we've heard that the recipes with the Welbilt are poor. Yet the recipe book prepared by Dak Industries and supplied with its version of the same machine has proven reasonably good. But don't follow any of the recipe books blindly. To get the best possible texture in your bread, play around with various types of flour, and the ratio of flour to liquid -- the experimenting is part of the fun, and with such easy cleanup, it's painless.

Even using the models with cool-down fans, you'll get the best crust by taking the bread out of the machine fairly soon after the cooling cycle and (if you have the will power) by letting the loaf "set" for at least 30 minutes before cutting into it.

Without preservatives and "dough conditioners" used in commercial breads, your machine's bread will get stale the old-fashioned way -- that is, rather than turning rubbery as commercial bread does, it will gradually dry out, from the outside in. You'll be delighted to discover that your three-day-old bread, although harder than it was, actually tastes good. And it makes wonderful french toast.

The only way to be sure you're going to like the bread produced by these machines is to try it. So ask whether the machine is returnable, and what the time limit is on returns. The catalogue houses like Sharper Image and Dak Industries generally have a 30-day return policy, and the department stores usually apply the same return policy to the bread makers as to other small appliances. In any case, check before you buy.

We saved the bad news for last. All of these machines run about $300, probably too steep a price for people who are satisfied with the bread they can buy at the supermarket. But for bread addicts like us, suckers for the smell and taste of a fresh loaf yet too busy to make it the old-fashioned way, an electronic bread machine makes a lot of sense.

And if you need a rationalization for spending $300 on a machine to make bread, here's a creative one: a real estate agent friend of ours says -- only half in jest -- that the machine can help sell your house. Just turn it on when you're due to show prospective buyers through, she says, and the aroma will make them fall in love with the place.