Measure the liquid called for, and heat it to the correct temperature. Sprinkle the yeast over the liquid, and let this sit for a few minutes. This is called proofing the yeast, and ensures that the yeast is fresh and active. When the yeast mixture rises and starts bubbling, proceed with the rest of the bread recipe.
Measure part of the flour into a bowl, and add any other dry ingredients or flavorings.
Make a depression, or well, in the center of the flour, and add the dissolved yeast and other liquids along with eggs, if used in the recipe. Beat well to combine.
Gradually add the rest of the flour until the bread dough becomes difficult to stir. At this point, flour your work surface and dump the dough out of the bowl onto the floured surface. Gather the dough into a rough ball, adding more flour as necessary so your fingers don't stick to the dough. Begin kneading the dough.
Knead the Dough
To knead, turn the dough over several times, gathering any stray particles. Fold the dough in half towards you, and push away with the heels of your hands. Turn the dough one quarter turn, and repeat this process until the dough is smooth, elastic, springy, and no longer sticky. Sprinkle more flour on the dough as you work so it doesn't stick to the board or your hands. This process will take from 5 to 10 minutes. Doughs made with bread flour typically require more kneading than those made with all purpose flours.
Let it Rise
Grease a large mixing bowl lightly with shortening or butter. Place the smooth, kneaded dough into the bowl, turning it over so the top is greased as well. This step makes sure the dough doesn't dry out as it rises. Cover with a clean cloth and place in a warm spot. An electric oven with the light turned on, or a gas oven with the pilot light are perfect places for rising.
Let the dough rise until double in bulk. This means the dough increases in size, and when you press your fingers into the top, the indentation remains when you remove your fingers.
Form the Loaves
Punch down the dough by pushing your fist into the center. Pull the edges of the dough into the depression and push it down to expel the air. Then turn it onto a floured surface. Shape according to the recipe.
Place the dough in greased loaf tins, or on a greased cookie sheet for free form loaves. Cover and let rise again until double in size. This second rising will take less time, because there is more yeast in the dough.
Bake the bread in a preheated oven. The bread should rise a bit in the oven too - this is called 'oven spring'. Bake according to the recipe until golden brown. The bread is done when it sounds hollow when you tap it with your fingers. Remove from the pans and let cool on a wire rack, then stand back as your family attacks it. I like to brush some more butter on the top of the crust. This adds flavor and keeps the crust softer.
Sometimes the yeast is stirred into the flour, instead of being proofed separately. The only change in this type of recipe is the water should be warmer. Follow instructions as above.
Batter breads start with wet doughs or batters. This type of dough isn't kneaded, but stirred vigorously for a longer period of time to develop the gluten. The dough is stirred down after rising, instead of punching down, and spooned into loaf pans to rise and bake.
Sweet breads and other savory flavored breads usually have special shaping instructions. Follow the recipes carefully.