Originally Posted by naphthalene
Anything I make with bread dough or bread-like dough (soft pretzels, bread, bread rolls, croissant, etc) always turns out bad tasting (either like nothing, or the leavening agent...), dry, cracked, and it never browns evenly.
I can follow recipes fine on the internet usually, but anything I try to make out of bread just does NOT work.
I've been baking bread for around fifty years so let me share a bit of my knowledge.
I know that in the US you use cup measurements but to us Brits this seens very hit and miss for baking which requires precise measurements. It might be worth investing in an inexpensive set of kitchen scales so you can start weighing ingredients. I believe they are stocked in supermarkets and kitchen shops in the US. Also, look to your oven. IMO every cook's best friend is an oven thermometer which you can use to test the temperatre of your oven. In my exerience most oven thermostats are not very accurate and you may need to adjust the temperature
Another thing to bear in mind is that flour won't always absorb the precise amount of liquid that the recipe says and over-dry dough will makes a dry hard loaf.. With bread dough you need to learn to judge this by touch and texture. Incidentally, it's easier to add flour to bread dough which is too wet than to add water to dough which is too dry.
Are you using liquid that is too hot or not warm enough to activate the yeast? Liquid for bread making needs to be warm enough to be comfortable when you put a finger in it for a few seconds. Don't fall for the advice I've heard on a couple of cookery programmes recently, that you can make bread with cold water. Believe me - you can't.
Is your flour old? It's important with all types of flour that you abide by the "use by..." date.
Are you kneading and stretching it for long enough? Ten minutes kneading and stretching after mixing is the recommended time if you are doing it by hand (and even with the food mixer I still give it 10 minutes). When it's been kneaded enough it should be stable enough to stay where you put it instead of springing back when stretched.
When you put the dough to rise be careful that you don't put it in too high a temperature as the yeast can be killed off. Bread tends to have a better flavour if you put it to rise in a cooler rather than a very warm atmosphere to rise. My kitchen is cold when I'm not cooking so I sometimes leave my dough to rise overnight in an oiled bowl with a damp cloth over it so it doesn't get a skin on it. If I need it quicker I'll leave it near a radiator in the sitting room.
I still stick to the old way of kneading, rising and then kneading lightly again before shaping and leaving to rise again prior to baking although makers of the instant (eg Fermipan) yeasts which require no mixing with water to activate them as I find it makes a better loaf say this isn't really necessary.
You'll notice that I make bread by hand. It's very satisfying and you can work out your frustrations when kneading it. Give it a name - your husband's if he's annoyed you or that shop assistant who was rude to you or your boss! I have had a bread making machine in the past but it ended up in the thrift shop as the results were so hit and miss. Sometimes I got a perfect loaf but more often the bread was either soggy or so hard you could build houses with it so I gave up. In any case, although it sounds as though bread takes a long time to make, you don't have to watch it all the time. It will be quite happy on its own while you go shopping, walk the dog or watch television.
If you can find a copy of Elizabeth David's "English Bread and Yeast Cookery" snap it up. It tells you everything you ever needed to know about the subject and has some great recipes.
Experience counts with yeast baking so don't give up.