I hear from lots of people how they have just had such terrible luck with making bread. Mine has definitely been through trial and error, so here are the tips I've learned that help me.
* Always, always, ALWAYS proof your yeast. Yeast is an active and live bacteria. If the liquids you add are too cold, it won't activate. If it's too hot - you'll kill it. To proof your yeast: measure your yeast in a seperate bowl, add 1T sugar (sugar is the bacteria's food) then add warm water. The ideal temperature is between 110 and 115 degrees F. Active Dry Yeast NEEDS to be proofed. And while Instant Yeast does not, I always do anyway, because then I don't waste an entire batch of bread by killing off or not activating the yeast.
According to a friend of mine who read this, some fancy schmancy new ovens have a 'bread proofing' function. I must explore this idea further.
* If your bread doesn't rise, or doesn't rise fast enough - it may be too cold in your house. I often take a large pan of water and put a cooling rack over the pan. I turn the stove onto medium low and put the dough in a greased bowl to rise. Just watch to make sure the towel you cover it will isn't anywhere near the burner. Also, don't get it too high, or it will rise too fast and can even start to cook onto the edges of the bowl.
* Don't put in too much flour. While the amount of flour you add does depend on the humidity level of your area, you actually want your dough to be wetter and sticky.
* Wheat or Heavy Grained Bread. They take longer to rise, don't rise as high or fluffy and can become quite dense. Use 1/2 and 1/2 with white flour, or add some additional glueten for a fluffier bread. I like to use Bob's Red Mill . You can often find it in the baking section of your grocery store.
* Don't over-knead your bread. Texture really does matter. You want it elasticy, but well mixed. You'll have to experiment with this for yourself, especially depending on how you mix before you knead. I have found that by mixing in my kitchen Aid with the dough hook on low I can lower my knead time and get a great texture.
*Storing your Yeast. If you buy the large bag at Costco to save money (like me). Then once the bag is opened it does need to be stored in an airtight container in your fridge. Without it refridgerated, it will die and be useless. Also, write the expiration date on the container.
* Milk in receips can create a great flavor and texture. However, if you do not scald the enzymes will interfere with the yeast. Canned milk and buttermilk are great for baking. Buttermilk adds an amazing texture, but use 1/2 of what is called for in the recipe.
* Liquids you can substitute the water in your recipe with yogurt (1/2 of liquid called for) or other broths, juices or flavorings for flavor.
* Don't overcook. Loaves are done when they sound hollow when tapped. Remove from pans immediately to cool.
*Storing your bread. Loaves can be frozen and stored well, but make sure they are completely cool before freezing.
* Freezing to bake later. Do you love warm, fresh rolls at dinner, but don't always have the time to do the full prep? I picked up some disposable baking tins at the Dollar store and prepped a double batch of rolls. After the first rise when you shape the rolls, divide them up into the different pans. Cover them well (tin foil, etc) and place in the freezer. Then, all you have to do is pull out the pan, set in a warm place to defrost and rise, then pop in the oven! Also, you can place them on a cookie sheet to freeze, then toss them into a large ziploc. Just like the store-bought freezer rolls. You can also do this for full loaves of bread.