I have a thick heavy bread bowl that I use exclusively for making bread. It is about a two gallon capacity, that is about eight quarts. Maintaining a stable temperature is important to the process of rising dough, so either having a thick bowl or wrapping it in towels to achieve a good warm stable temperature is key.
In that bowl, I pour a quart of hot water over a stick of butter (a stick of butter is about eight tablespoons, or a half a cup). The hot water helps to warm the bowl and it helps to soften the butter, making it easier to mix in with the other ingredients. I add some salt, about one tablespoon. And some sugar, about a quarter cup. And I add about three cups of flour. This is called sponge, or slurry.
In the meantime (usually after I pour the hot water over the butter, but before I add the other ingredients~~salt, sugar, and flour), I proof the yeast. Here in the south, yeast cakes are not to be found in the grocery stores, so I use powdered yeast. Sometimes I use the envelopes, sometimes I use that in the jars. You can find this in the baking aisle, where the flour, sugar, salt, baking powder/soda, boxed cake mixes are found.
I use a specific bowl for proving the yeast, every time. It's a thick glass bowl, about six ounces (I think). Yeast needs to be warm, but not too hot and not too cold, in order to be active, to work, to grow. Body temperature and slightly warmer is best, I think.
So, after I pour hot water into the bread bowl, I pour slightly cooler water into the proof bowl. Usually warm water is about the temperature that you might have when testing a baby's bottle on the inside of your wrist. Warm but not scalding hot.
To that proofing bowl, add three envelopes of yeast (or about two tablespoons, which is about an eighth of a cup). Yeast is sold in a strip of three envelopes, use the entire strip. It takes the same effort and time to make a batch of bread (multiple loaves) as it does one loaf, so it seems better to just bake a batch then to only do one loaf, especially since it's the same amount of clean up and dough rises at the same rate regardless of amount of dough. So I use either all three envelopes in the strip or use about two tablespoonsful from the jar of yeast.
Mix the yeast into the water gently. It is ok for the yeast to be a bit lumpy, just so that it is all in the water. While that yeast bubbles and regains life thru the miracle of rehydration, go ahead and mix your salt, sugar, and some flour to make your sponge, as described above.
When your sponge is ready, you will see that in your proof bowl, your yeast has proved that it is active by the bubbles breaking the surface. Your sponge will now be a more moderate temperature (having cooled when you were mixing in the sugar, salt, and flour) and you can add your proofed yeast to the sponge with no worries of killing off the yeast.
You can now add the majority of the five pound bag of flour to your dough. Use your hand, it is better than a dough hook, and makes the process more fun. One hand stays in the bowl, mixing, and the other hand adds the flour til you've got the right consistency. It will seem very sticky, just add a little more flour til you can see some of it clumping. Then, dust your mixing hand with flour and the goo will come off your hand much easier than not.
Next, flour a surface that is dry and clean. I use a bread board (a large cutting board that is used exclusively for this purpose) set at about waist height. You can be liberal with flouring this surface, as your dough will need to be kneaded and the flour will be absorbed into the sticky dough til it becomes smooth and elastic. Be sure to continue flouring the center of the board so that your dough doesn't stick to the surface. Take your time and make adjustments as necessary.
Dump the sticky dough onto your floured surface. Let the dough rest and wash out your bread bowl. Dry it and then grease it heavily, using shortening or butter. Set aside for the moment. Now move back to your sticky dough on the floured surface, begin kneading.
Kneading is fun! Use your arms to drive the heel of your palms into and up the dough. Bring the dough in from the sides, by folding it in. Also, you can flip the entire dough ball, to knead more thoroughly. This is helping to activate the yeast and distribute the yeast and gluten throughout the dough. But wait, Debra, (you say) where did the gluten come into the picture?
If you use regular flour (the bleached or unbleached white flour), the gluten is in the wheat and has already been distributed throughout the flour before you even purchased it. What you do when kneading the dough is you mix that gluten in the flour with the yeast and this will help it to rise. You will see a finer crumb in the finished product with good kneading.
If you use whole wheat flour (or whole wheat graham flour), you may want to add gluten (usually available in powdered form, sold in a box, next to the flours) so that your dough rises more than just relying on yeast alone. Rye flours and other flours, do not contain the same ratios of gluten as wheat flour does, so if you want to have leavened loaves, you might want to add gluten with the yeast. The reason whole wheat flour doesn't have the same activation as the finer powdered flour (white) is because the process differs. White flour has been processed to death, the finished product is super fine, a dusting literally. Whole wheat flour is processed differently, so the product is coarser and the gluten isn't as distributed into the finished product.
My explanations might not be as clear as I would like, but I hope you get the idea. If not, just ask! I'll do my best to explain more clearly.
Ok, so how do you know when the dough is kneaded enough? Well, the firmness and consistency will be elastic and smooth. Make your ball, then poke it. Watch to see how the dough responds, does the poked area rise back? It should hold the depression, but fill out at a nice rate, not too quickly (probably too sticky and you need to add flour and knead some more) and not too slowly (yeast is not working right).
You will gain a feel the more often you do this. And every now and then, even the most experienced baker will have a flop. So do not worry overly much if this happens, it's ok and try it again when you are not stressed.
When you feel that the dough is ready, form a ball with it, tucking it so that the top is smooth and rounded. You want to flip the ball into the greased bread bowl so that the bottom-side of the ball is on top. Then flip the dough ball so that it is right-side-up in the bowl. This coats your entire dough ball with the grease that was inside the bread bowl. Next, cover the bread bowl (with the dough nestled inside) with a clean towel (I have, you guessed it, bread towels that I use exclusively for this purpose) and set the bread bowl in a draft-free warm place so that the yeast can do its thing and help the dough to rise, Rise, RISE (muwahhhahahahhaha). By warm, I do not mean hot. You want to nurture the yeast, not kill it. Too hot, and the yeast will die a death before it has done its duty (and that's sad).
Clean up your kitchen. Or not. up to you. You will be using the floured surface, so don't clean that. You want to remove any lumps of dough that are matted with flour on that surface. Grease your bread pans, get into the corners and seams good! If you do not have loaf pans, do not despair! You can use an surface that can be baked in the oven. My serving bowls are great, also I use my cookie sheets, just form the dough into a round loaf and POOF! oh so pretty!
While the dough is rising, go do something fun. Like the posting an entry in your journal, taking a picture of the dog, or looming yourself a hat. Check on the dough from time to time, but lifting the towel too often will allow cold drafts to invade the nice warm cozy space the dough is rising in. Give it time to do its thing!
Most times, it takes my dough about forty minutes to an hour (depends on humidity, temperature, type of yeast (the rapid rise does make a difference), type of flour etc.). When it is approximately doubled in volume, grease your hand (just one is necessary, but you could use two, if ya wanna, 'sup ta ya), remove the towel, move bowl to where you can do this, and slam! into the dough. This punching down of the dough allows the build up of gases to release. You want to gather the dough into a ball and cover again, setting it back into its draft-free warm place to rise again.
This time, it will rise a little less so in volume than it had the first time. It will rise a bit slower than the first time. And it will feel a bit different. Poke it. It should hold the depression. If not, let it keep rising. The second rise is just as important as the first rise. Don't get all impatient on it now!
When the second rise is thru, dump the dough back onto your floured surface. This time, your surface need only be scantly floured. This is because your dough shouldn't be as sticky as it was the first time you used the surface. You still want to be sure it is floured a bit though, because you will be needing each loaf and don't want it to stick to your surface.
Ok, so you dumped it onto your floured surface. Take a sharp knife (I use a butcher's cleaver, it's what I had, so it's what I use) and divide the dough into loaves. Now use the surface's space to knead one loaf at a time. You knead that loaf in much the same way you kneaded the entire dough ball earlier. This time you will feel little gas bubbles (like popping bubble-wrap!) in the dough. Knead it til those bubbles are not so obvious, then shape that dough into loaf and plop it into your pan (or greased bowl to bake or cookie sheet or whichever container you plan to use in the oven). Do this for each loaf until you have no mo' do'.
I've had as few as three loaves and as many as seven, out of this same amount of ingredients. It depends on the amount of dough that is created (based on type of flour, mostly, and the growth of yeast) and the type of baking pan I use, or loaf size I make.
Experiment and see what you like.
Now, after your dough is tucked into its loaves; you want to cover those loaves (in their pans, bowls, cookie sheets, etc) with towels and set back into the draft-free warm place. That dough needs to recover from all that man-handling you've just done. Let it rise, in the pans, for the third time.
The third rise will be brief in comparison to the other two. I recommend warming your oven when you begin to form the loaves. By the time it is warm and your third rise is through, your loaves will be ready to bake. You will see that the loaves are slightly rounded and the surface has risen some. Place in oven and bake at 350 (to 375) til done.
The heat from oven will arrest the yeast, so that it only rises some when you begin to bake the loaves. The surface will take on a uhm baked appearance (harder, browner, more even) when the bread is almost done. This can take about forty five minutes, depending on flour type and how many loaves are in the oven at one time.
When you remove from the oven, flip the loaf out onto a toweled surface. Slap it with your open palm/fingers. You should hear a nice thump, thump thump. This means the interior is done. The resounding vibes from inside the loaf should echo back to your fingers nicely. If it seems sluggish, pop the loaf back in the oven. You can do that right on the oven rack (the loaf is close enough to done that it will hold its shape).
Darker pans, and metal ones, bake faster and hotter than glass pans and lighter ones. Make adjustments accordingly. Allow the loaves to cool somewhat, but you can break into one, tear it open and eat it while still warm from the oven. I always designate a loaf to do this with, that I can break with whomever is near and dear. Wrap the other loaves when they are somewhat cool (if you do this too soon, the loaves will get soggy).
Because there are no preservatives in your homemade bread, it will turn faster than store bought breads. Use what you have within a few days. Freeze what you think you might not use in a timely fashion. You might want to slice a loaf before you freeze it, then take out a few slices at a time as you use them.
The main thing is to relax and have fun. Take your time and enjoy!