Welcome to White Bread 101
Tip #1: When making bread, weigh your flour if at all possible. Measuring it out with a measuring cup is (most times) not an accurate way to measure. Due to humidity, settling of the flour, amount of pre-sifting, and your measuring technique, each cup of flour can be significantly larger or smaller than the next. When in doubt, weigh! I feel like all of my problems with making bread in the past stemmed from not following this tip. People generally tend to put too much flour into things when they use a measuring cup. This will leave your bread dry, dense, and...gross. So weigh it instead! 1 cup flour = 4.25 ounces
Tip # 2: Scald the milk, then add the butter to it. No, you technically don't have to scald for health purposes anymore, but it breaks down the protein, which helps make a better dough. Also, if you scald the milk, then add cold butter to it, the milk cools to just the right temperature as the butter melts, and you don't have to worry about heating it up to the elusive lukewarm-what-temperature-is-that-anyway-temperature. To scald it, just put the milk in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. When tiny bubbles just start to form around the edge of the pan but it hasn't boiled yet, you're good to go. Easy, right?
Tip #3: Use instant yeast when possible. And no, that's not the same thing as active dry yeast. Instant yeast doesn't need to be proofed beforehand. If you do need to use active dry yeast, just dissolve it for 10 minutes in your scalded milk and butter mixture before mixing it with the dry ingredients. But honestly, making bread takes so much time anyway, I'm all for saving that 10 minutes. Go instant.
Tip #4: Add potato flakes. Yes, those instant mashed potatoes that do not count as mashed potatoes. Add them. They act a bit like potato flour and help the bread hold more moisture. Bread with potato flakes = moist bread.
Tip #5: Use the right size of loaf pan. What, you say? You didn't know there were different sizes? Neither did I, but there are. In general, you'll use the size of pan indicated in the recipe (if it actually lists one). If no pan size is listed, you can figure it out by the amount of flour the recipe calls for. If your recipe calls for 3-1/2 to 4 cups flour (including other grains, oats, and potato flakes), you'll use a 9x5-inch loaf pan. If the recipe calls for less than 3-1/2 cups flour, use an 8.5x4.5-inch loaf pan.
*Note: The recipe listed below bakes best in an 8.5x4.5-inch pan, although you can use a 9x5 if that's all you've got. Just don't expect it to rise above the pan.
Tip #6: Let the dough rise in the right setting. It took me a long time to figure out which method worked best for me, but after a lot of trial and error, this is the method that I use every time now. After you've kneaded your dough, place it in a big, lightly-greased glass or metal bowl. Spray some plastic wrap with non-stick cooking spray, and place it over the top. Seal off the edges as much as possible. Place the covered bowl in your oven, and close the oven door. Leave it closed. Turn the oven on to warm or the lowest setting available (not broil) and immediately set the timer for 60 seconds! I speak from experience that if you don't, you'll forget you turned the oven on, and there goes your perfect dough. When the time goes off, turn off the oven (remember to leave the door closed!), and let it rise for about an hour. When it's doubled in size, take out the dough, and form it into a loaf. Place it in a greased loaf pan, cover it with the sprayed plastic wrap, seal the edges as much as possible, and stick it back in the oven. Turn it on to warm again for 60 seconds, then turn it off. Once the dough is level with the top of the pan (usually after about 20 minutes for me), take it out of the oven and set it on the stove or counter to finish rising to one inch above the pan. Meanwhile, preheat your oven to your cooking temperature. The oven should be preheated at about the same time your dough is the right height for cooking. Voila! Simple, right? You can also use a damp towel instead of the plastic wrap, but I find that the dough still dries out a bit that way.
Tip #7: Don't use your dough as a punching bag. When a recipe says to "punch down" the dough, don't punch it. You'll squeeze all of the air out of it, and air = leavening, which is the whole point of letting it rise. Just gently deflate it with your fingers. That's all you need. If you go a bit too Rocky with your dough, it will end up being dense.
Tip #8: If it's getting too brown too early, tent it with foil. Recipes calling for sugar, honey, or a lot of butter tend to brown more quickly. To prevent this from happening, you can gently lay a piece of aluminum foil over the bread partway through cooking. Don't pinch it down, just lay it loosely there like a mom would gently lay a blanket over a sleeping baby so as not to wake him up. The foil allows the bread to keep baking without browning as much.
Phew. That was a lot. Are you hanging in there? Okay, here comes the recipe.
(from King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion--somewhat adapted to my climate)
3 cups + a small handful of flour (or about 13-14 ounces flour)
1/3 cup potato flakes (not potato buds or peals--flakes).
3 Tbsp sugar
2 tsp instant yeast
1-1/4 tsp salt
1-1/8 cups milk (9 fluid ounces)
1/4 cup butter
1. In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, potato flakes, sugar, instant yeast, and salt. Set aside. In all honesty, I usually do all of this while I'm scalding the milk (see next step), since they take about the same amount of time anyway.
2. Scald the milk over medium-low heat, then remove the pan from heat and add the butter. Once the butter has melted completely, pour the milk and butter mixture into the bowl with the flour mixture. Stir to combine, then knead it all until it's smooth and elastic. For more info on kneading, see this website.
3. Let it rise until doubled in size (see Tip #6 above). Gently deflate the dough, form it into a loaf, and place it in an 8.5x4.5-inch loaf pan. Let it rise until the dough is one inch above the pan. Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 350 degrees F.
4. Bake for 25 minutes, then tent the loaf with foil and continue baking for another 10-15 minutes or until it sounds hollow when you tap it. Remove the loaf from the pan immediately, and cool in a wire rack.
5. You did it! Enjoy your freshly baked homemade white bread.