Thomas wrote: "How about a bread-baking entry? As in, if a random blog reader, named, say, "Tom," wanted to start baking, what would he or she (okay, the "or she" is unlikely) need? What are the merits of different flours? Baking stone or no baking stone? The list goes on and on.
That's a mighty tall order, Thomas, and it will definitely take more than one entry to address, but I'll give you a basic course, and a recipe for making your own sourdough bread.
Bread is nothing more than flour, water, salt, and yeast. The first leavened breads were probably produced in Egypt (along with beer) about 5,000 years ago using these very ingredients. In fact, the people who worked to build the Pyramids were paid two loaves of bread and three jugs of beer per day. About 20 years ago, archaeologists found a bakery that dates from the reign of Pharoah Menkaure, under whom the Third Giza Pyramid was built. Some estimate that as many as 30,000 loaves were produced there per day. That's a lot of bread.
But on to your question(s). To begin with, bread dough is the product of fermentation. I could go into a long-winded pseudo-scientific explanation of how it works, but there are literally dozens of books out there that you can read that will do a much better job than I can (the two that I find is indispensable are Bread: A Baker's Book of Techniques and Recipes, by Jeffrey Hamelman, and Beard On Bread, by James Beard). Because of the fermentation process, the longer the mixture is allowed to rise, the more complex the structure and flavor of the finished loaf will be. It is, in fact, recommended that the dough be allowed to rise, be deflated, be allowed to rest, preformed, and then let rise for a second time. After shaping, the unbaked loaves should be allowed to proof (rise for a third and final time) before baking. This allows for the most structure, the best crumb, and the greatest flavor.
But there, I've gotten ahead of myself. One of my favorite kinds of bread to bake and to eat is sourdough. With its distinctive tang, sourdough makes for remarkably good bread. But where does one get the "starter" for sourdough? Well, there are many sources. It can be purchased from various sources. King Arthur Flour will sell you some that's been going for over 250 years. You can go to a commercial baker and ask for some. You can ask a friend who bakes for some. Of course, the easiest and least expensive source is to make some yourself.
Start with a clean plastic or glass wide-mouthed container (a mayo jar is perfect). Combine 1 cup of warm water and 1 cup of unbleached flour in a bowl. You can add some honey, if you'd like, but no more than a teaspoonful. Pour this mixture into your container, cover with cheesecloth that's held in place with a rubber band and put in a warm (70 to 80 degree) place. After 24 hours, remove and discard half of the mixture you've got. Add 1/2 cup of flour and 1/2 cup of water, and mix well with a wooden spoon (you don't want to use any metal, as it can react with the starter). Repeat this process every 24 hours. After three or four days (it could be more, it could be less, depending on the quantities and types of yeast in your environment), your mixture should start to bubble, froth, and/or expand. It should also start to smell sour, or even a little beery. When this happens, your starter is ready. You can use it as is, or you can store it, covered, in your fridge (if using a mayo jar, punch a hole in the lid to allow some breathing room). If you store it, you'll need to feed it once a week by removing half of the mixture, and adding 1/2 cup flour and 1/2 cup water. Mix, replace the lid, and return to the fridge. NOTE: If storing, your starter may exude a clear to dark brown liquid known as "hootch." This is nothing to worry about, it's merely a byproduct of the fermentation process containing small amounts of alcohol. If you notice this happening, either pour it off or mix it back into the starter. Pouring it off will decrease the sour taste of the starter, whereas mixing it in will increase the sour taste. You can use other types of flour in your starter, such as whole wheat and rye. These can be used alone, or they can be mixed in with the white flour. Each one will yield a different result.
When you're ready to bake bread, you first need to make a sponge. Take your starter out of the fridge. Pour it into a large bowl, add 1 cup of warm water and 1 cup of flour. Mix well, cover with a clean kitchen towel, and let sit in a warm place for several hours to allow it to proof. Check the sponge every so often. When it's bubbly and has a white froth on top, it's done. Of course, you can let it sit to develop flavor. The longer it's left alone, the more sour the finished product will be.
To bake bread, you'll need 2 cups of the sponge, approximately 3 cups of unbleached flour, 2 tablespoons of olive oil (you can substitute melted butter), 4 teaspoons of sugar and 2 teaspoons of kosher salt. You should have some leftover sponge, which is a good thing, since you're going to use it for your next starter. Simply place the leftover sponge into your container (having cleaned and dried the container, first), add 1/2 cup of flour and 1/2 cup of water. Place back in the fridge and feed it weekly. Your starter is made, and you've begun your own baker's legacy (my baking teacher had some 100% rye sourdough starter that was first made by Great Uncle Rolf in Germany at the end of the 19th century).
Next, to the sponge, add the sugar, salt, and oil. Mix well, and begin to add flour 1/2 cup at a time. Keep adding flour until you've got a good, flexible dough that's neither too stiff nor too loose. Notice that above I said "approximately 3 cups of flour. That's because flour varies in the amount of moisture it has in it, depending upon what type of flour you're using, what variety of wheat it came from, where it was milled, how old it is, how humid or dry the day is. The point is, the amount of flour you use will differ from day to day. When kneading dough, trust your hands to know when it's the right consistency. After kneading for about 10 minutes, cover the bowl with a kitchen towel, place it in a warm spot, and let it rise until it's doubled in bulk. This will take from one to several hours. When doubled, place the dough onto a floured board, knead it for about a minute, and form into either one large or two smaller loaves (any shape will work here, but I prefer the classic round loaf; I think it cooks more evenly than a long, thin loaf). Sprinkle a baking sheet with coarse cornmeal, place the shaped dough on it, slit the top, cover with a towel, and let rise again until doubled in bulk.
Place a pan on the bottom of the oven and a baking stone on the lowest rack, and preheat your oven to 375 degrees. When the bread is ready to be baked, quickly pour a cup of ice water (with cubes) into the pan, put the baking sheet on the middle rack of the oven, and close the oven door. Reduce heat to 350 degrees, and do not open it again for any reason for the next 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, check the bread. It should be nicely browned, crusty, and may even be fully baked (depending on your oven). To test for doneness, rap the bottom of the bread with your knuckles or a wooden spoon. If it sounds hollow, it's done. If it's not done, put it back into the oven and let bake, testing every 10 minutes. When the loaf is finished, remove it from the oven, place it on a rack, and allow to cool for at least an hour. Your bread is now ready to serve.
Sound like a lot of work? Well, it's not, really. Most of the time is spent waiting for the bread to proof, rise, and bake. Are there shortcuts to this process? Well, sort of. You could use rapid-rise, commercial yeast. You could try the "no-knead" method. There's even one author who claims that you can "bake artisan bread in five minutes a day!" (I've tried it. It sucks.) But the only way to get a good, artisan-quality loaf of bread is by being patient. And I think that a truly good loaf of bread is well worth the wait.
I've got a ton more to say about bread and baking, but I'll just leave it at this for now. Do some baking, and let me know how it goes. Good luck, Thomas!