Mix the bread dough until you can stretch a piece of it thin enough to create a translucent skin or “windowpane.” At this point the gluten has developed enough and the dough can be left to rise (a.k.a to proof).
If left at room temperature, most dough will proof in a little over an hour (slightly less for small dinner rolls). To keep a skin from forming on your bread as it rises, rub a small amount of cooking spray or olive oil on the surface of the dough before it proofs. This allows your bread to expand in the oven to its full size.
For extra flavor, you can let the bread proof in your refrigerator overnight. This is a long, slow fermentation, and will give the bread a nice crust. Make sure to proof on the tray you will bake the bread on, and to cover the dough loosely with plastic, which prevents the bread from absorbing too much moisture in the fridge.
If using a bread machine, take the dough out before it goes into proofing mode, and hand-shape into a ball that springs back when touched. Allow it to proof on a sheet tray in a warm place for about one hour, or until the skin does not spring back immediately when touched lightly. Then bake in a 375° F machine until the bread’s a medium-brown color. This will give you a rustic-looking “boule” or round loaf.
Use scissors to cut notches or X’s into the top of your bread right before you put it in the oven to bake. This creates a distinctive design on your bread, and allows the bread dough to “open up” in the oven. It will also help to prevent the bread crust from tearing as it expands in the oven.
Your oven should be at 375 to 400 F for baking the bread. If you have a spare baking sheet, place that on the bottom rack as the oven comes to temperature. When you put the bread in the oven, pour cold water onto the bottom sheet and quickly close the oven door. This will create steam, and give your bread good “oven spring” (a final burst of fermentation and expansion that creates a well-risen, nicely rounded top) and a crunchy crust. The bread is done when you tap the bottom of the loaf and it makes a hollow sound. The crust on the bottom should be slightly darker than the crust on the top.
A final tip: For bread that's a great accompaniment to a cheese plate, mix dried cherries or cranberries into a whole wheat bread recipe at the end of the mixing process.
#1: Crusty French Baguette. There's a reason that these breads have stood the test of time. A classic French baguette and a loaf of Peasant Bread prove that white bread can have texture and personality.
#2: Whole Wheat Bread. If you've only eaten whole wheat bread that comes in a plastic bag, try this recipe for a revelation. Other hearty whole grain bread ideas include whole grain and oatmeal.
#3: Rosemary Onion Wheat Baguettes. This aromatic rosemary-onion wheat bread is so tasty, it doesn't need to be used in a sandwich; you can enjoy it on its own with a little olive oil. For another savory herbed bread, try this dill bread recipe.
#4: Sourdough Bread. A familiar favorite, the distinctively tangy taste of sourdough in this crusty loaf is a whole other experience when you taste it fresh.
#5: Milwaukee Pumpernickel Bread. When you're ready to fill out your bread repertoire, try making loaves of darker, more flavorful pumpernickel or rye.