Bread...without a breadmaker
I would like to start baking bread, though I must admit I do find it intimidating. I have little to no experience with this, and don't have a breadmaker. Are there recipes out there for fabulous breads that can be done in the oven (or on the grill)?
The issue is in "follow[ing] the recipe exactly." you probably used too much flour. err on the side of using too little flour, even though a drier dough is easier to work with. if a recipe calls for 3 cups flour, hold back the last 1/4 to 1/2 cup and gradually add it until you don't need anymore....
Update: Today I made my first attempt at bread making. I made focaccia using Lauren J.'s recipe from this site (http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...). I substituted sage for rosemary as it was the only fresh herb I had in the house. When it came out of the oven, the bread was a beautiful golden brown and looked really wonderful with all the chunks of sea salt and sage. It did taste quite good, though a little dry. I followed the recipe exactly as written (aside from the sage substitution) - any clue what I did wrong, or what I can do to improve my focaccia?
Overall, I do think this turned out really well. This was an encouraging experience made much easier by all your generous responses! Breadmaking is much easier than I thought, and something I will definately attempt again soon!
We got a bread maker for a wedding present. We made a few of the loaves and after being completely underwhelmed by what it produced we packed it away. I now make ALL my bread by hand (And a kitchen aid) and find it more enjoyable both in taste and in satisfaction. It's actually quite fun.
A bread machine is still mighty nice for those times when you're too busy to run in and out of the kitchen every 45 minutes or so to do this or that to the dough but you still want the homemade bread.
I often see secondhand bread machines in good condition in thrift stores for $10 or so. They're a lot like home exercise equipment: people get them, use them just a few times, and then get rid of them when they want the counter space back.
Don't wait for enough "gumption" to do a masterpiece - get in there and BAKE.
Bake wonderful artisan loaves when you can, and hurry-up batter breads when you need something for dinner in a hurry. Get some mileage on those bread pans and you'll feel up to the "artisan urge" when it comes.
The King Arthur website has a recipe called "Daily Bread" that I enjoy ... well, uh ... daily.
Every successful society has some form of bread, often a flatbread. Think pita, lavosh, tortillas, focaccia, naan ..... The human race would have died out thousands of years ago without B-R-E-A-D so please do not sweat this project. It is only intimidating because you haven't made it before. Relax and enjoy the process of living organisms making something delicious on a *very* elastic time schedule. There are just a couple of mandatory ingredients and if you pay attention to them, you can make fabulous bread.
Flour: generally means wheat flour because of wheat's ability to develop gluten.
Yeast: makes bread rise and has a couple of enemies -- salt, excessive heat and time will all kill yeast's activity.
Liquid: can mean anything from plain water to milk and juices.
You've had several posters recommend The King Arthur Bread Book and it is a good start. So are Bernard Clayton, James Beard, The Joy of Cooking and many others. I fear that because each of these has so many recipes, the mere heft of the tome will be intimidating.
Try this for surefire success:
The night before you want to bake bread, mix 1 C water, 1 tsp yeast with 1 C flour (whole wheat or white - your choice). Let it sit out on your kitchen counter overnight and go to bed.
Stir your sponge (the flour water mixture - see you're already speaking "bread".
In a large bowl, mix 3 C flour (try unbleached white) 1 TBLS salt and 1.5 C warm water.
Using a 1 C Pyrex measuring cup, add 1/2 C warm water and slightly less than 1 TBLS (or 1 packet) of dried yeast. Mix in a smidge of sugar (optional) and wait until this foams. Stir again.
Add dissolved yeast to flour-water mixture and mix again.
Turn this shaggy, sticky mess onto a flour-covered surface and begin to knead. It is easier if you keep one hand clean and use a bench scraper but this is not necessary, only handy if you have to answer the phone. Knead for five minutes (+/-), adding additional flour as the dough will accept it, up to approx 5 C total flour (not including the "sponge").
Either wash your original bowl or use another clean one. Plop the dough into the bowl and add 1 TBLS oil, rolling the dough ball around to coat completely. Cover and let rise until doubled in size.
Because in live in Arizona, I'm very careful when someone advises "set in a warm place" because right now, July, everyplace is warm! Warmth will help the yeast activity to happen more quickly than a cold place will. Where you put this dough depends on your schedule. It can go into the refrigerator and be baked tomorrow, OR it can sit on a counter and rise for a couple of hours. To speed the rise, make the environment a bit warmer than room temperature (like +/- 90 degrees). NOTE: if you make the environment too warm, you will kill the yeast.
After the dough has doubled, punch it down and let rise again until doubled. This is a good time to think about what form you'd like to your bread - free form? loaf-shaped? braided? etc.
Shape your bread to your desired form - making a piled mass on a cornmeal-sprinkled sheetpan is likely the easiest for beginners or put it into two lightly greased loaf pans. Bake in preheated 350 degree oven until bread sounds hallow when tapped, or inside measures 190 degrees. Let cool a bit and enjoy!
My copy of Clayton's book has "chapter 1: A Beginning" and it gives five of the most simply, basic recipes you will ever find.
This book is incredible: there are chapters are ingredients, techniques, and then 23 chapters on different styles of bread. Anyone intimidated by this book should buy bread at the store, not make it at home. Perhaps Joy of Cooking isn't the best place to start; but this book is *designed* to teach you how you bake bread.
Put the bowl on your processor and use the bread blade. That’s the short plastic one. The metal one works, too. In the processor bowl:
3 C flour or 1 pound 
2t or 1 pkg yeast
Pulse to mix
In a microwavable cup:
11⁄4 C water
1 T olive oil 
Nuke it for 15 seconds 
Turn on processor and pour in the water. Once it’s all together in a ball, it’s no longer mixing, it’s kneading. So let it knead for about 1 min. It will be a little sticky.
Put oil in a bowl, put the dough in and turn it over. This keeps the dough from sticking and from getting a crust on top. Cover it and put it in the microwave. Once it’s in there it will have enough heat to be warm and kozy.
Let rise for an hour or two. An exact science. Get a baking sheet, a cookie sheet, a pizza pan or something. Sprinkle corn meal on the pan. Take the dough out and punch it down. Knead it into the shape you want – round or like a torpedo. Put the dough on the pan, cover it, and put it on the top of the stove. Put the oven on to 425°. 
In a half hour, uncover the dough, slice the top if you want, put it in the oven, and turn the oven down to 375° 
In 20 minutes, stick a probe thermometer in the center. When the thermometer reads 200°, it’s bread.  Take it out and, if you can, let it cool before cutting it.
This is bread as simple as it can be. Make it a few times before striking out for new horizons so that you will be able to tell what happens if you add more salt, some sugar or honey, or some grape nuts or whole wheat flour. Too much fancy too soon leads to disappointment and another unhappy former bread maker.
 If you can get some high gluten flour, that’s nice.
 This is a frill. You don’t need it to make bread. I had to tell ya. It makes it softer. You can use 3T of olive oil for pizza dough. Makes 2 pizzas.
 Don’t worry if it doesn’t seem warm enough. By the time you’re done kneading it in the processor, you’ll be surprised at how warm the dough is.
 At this point, you could put a pan of water on a lower rack. It makes steam. This makes the crust different. Maybe better, maybe not – it’s your call – it’s bread for you to eat and like.
 The messin’ around with the oven temperature is to give it a nice crust. You could actually bake it for 15 or 20 minutes at the higher temp. for a thicker crust.
 Between 190° and 205° is done. Lately mine is working at 199-200°
DON'T FORGET TO HAVE FUN!!
I have been baking bread for the past few years (by hand only; I don't own a breadmaker because I didn't have a good experience with one six years ago) and I agree, from several posters, that you should get some books by Rose Levy Beranbaum's or Bernie Clayton's.
You don't have to fret about baking bread. It's fun but it does require some patience for your bread dough to rise and ferment for its potential for great flavor. Just practice and you will become a great bread baker.
Hey: No scale and definitely no special bread pans necessary. I've made my best loaves either in the aluminum ones that are "disposable" or with no pan at all. I've been using the same disposable loaf pans since december. I took a class once (baking bread w/o recipes), where the instructor said, all bread tastes good the first hour. you can forget the salt, add too much flour, over proof, but unless you kill the yeast, you're in business. Oh, and no washing of the pans necessary. I'd seriously start with a loaf that gives "instant" gratification. instant being a relative term since the quickest i've ever gone from loaf to oven is 2 hours (focaccia). Pizza can be done in a little over an hour. I have the bread baker's apprentice which helps me make fantastic artisan bread, but most recipes take a couple of days. Make a nice honey oatmeal loaf, or white sandwich bread (on the side of the King Arthur Flour bag). It can be done by 9 at night on a school night. Initial success goes a looong way to boosting confidence! Good luck, and pls report back.
Please don't be intimidated by it-just have fun! I have been baking bread for twenty years and in that time, I have made some very good bread and some very bad bread. Don't get upset when you don't get the results you want-try try again! I have been trying for weeks on end to make kolaches that I think are edible and this weekend, I will try again.
Bittman's How to Cook Everything bread-making technique has totally changed my life. Basically, you dump all the ingredients in a food processor and blend for a minute, dump out the shaggy, still moist dough ball into an oiled bowl and let it rise. Fantastic method for any simple white flour recipe--pizza dough, baguettes, english muffins, french bread. I find that it taxes my food processor's motor to add anything but a touch of whole-wheat flour.
I have been making bread quite a while and I have never gotten results like this with hand-kneading. Very good technique to try if you're just getting into bread-making--you'll be surprised how easy it is, and if you find you like making bread, you can branch out into more advanced recipes.
Bread has been made for thousands of years without machines and often with the most rudimentary ovens.
Get a good scale, digital if you can afford it, a good book on bread like Rose Levy Beranbaum's or Bernie Clayoton's, or Carole Field. One my DH likes is the Bread Makers Apprentice. See if your library has them and read through and decide whose style makes you comofrtable and then practice, practice, practice. Good bread making takes time to learn. You will learn to jusdge when you have enlough flour by touch and how humidity plays a role from bread making session to session. You may have success with your first loaf and maybe not but don't give up bread making is almost a life long learning project.
Oh and get some good bread pans, Chicago Metalic makes them and get either a pizza stone or unglazed quarry tiles to put on the bottom rack of the oven. It helps keep the temperature even. The other big thing is yeast.Make sure it is fresh.