If there is anything that is going to affect the outcome of your bread, it is the flour. The kind, quality, and amount of flour in your bread will give you the result you do or do not want in your bread.
I'm not an expert, but here is a little bit of what I understand about flour. If anything I share is inaccurate, I hope someone corrects me.
When we talk of flour, we are usually referring to wheat flour. Of course there is other flours such as rice flour, rye flour, etc but wheat flour is what we commonly use for baking in America. This is changing as more and more cases of gluten intolerance are cropping up in the last few years. But for most of us, wheat flour bread is what we are accustomed to.
There is two types of wheat, hard wheat and soft wheat. Soft wheat is ground into flour for use as pastry flour. It is sometimes also called cake flour. It is good for any baking EXCEPT for yeast breads.
Hard wheat flour is necessary for successful bread baking. It contains higher gluten content. Most flour sold is "all-purpose". This is a mixture of hard and soft wheats and can be used for all baking, including bread. Some flour is specified "bread flour" and is specifically for bread baking because of the higher gluten it contains.
For making white bread, I prefer "unbleached" all purpose flour since it has a few less added chemicals. Usually I use Pillsbury brand or something similar. While I often use generic products, flour is one place that I refuse to buy the cheapest. If you are not pleased with your bread, trying a different type of flour is often effective.
Whole wheat flour is where I really get picky. Wheat comes in red wheat and white wheat. Red wheat is darker in color and has a stronger flavor and is what you will find in typical grocery store whole wheat flour. I buy Prairie Gold wheat, a high protein white wheat grown in Montana. I grind my own wheat berries to have the freshest quality flour. You can sometimes find Prairie Gold flour at a bulk food's store. It is far more expensive then generic flour, but I think it is worth it! I also know bakers who really like Bob's Red Mill and King Arthur flour. I'd love to hear what works for you.
If you are new at baking bread, I recommend making white bread first. Learn to work with yeast, knead dough and form your loaves with white bread. If your goal is to make whole wheat bread, you can slowly replace a few cups of white flour with whole wheat. Give yourself time to adjust to using new flours. Some people also need to allow their bodies time to adjust to eating more fiber.
For some reason, it seems that whole wheat flour is a little more challenging to work with. The area where the wheat is grown, the protein level of the wheat, and other factors will all affect the outcome of your bread. The bran in the whole wheat flour can act like little razors and cut the gluten of the dough and hinder the dough from rising.
I don't want to scare anyone from making whole wheat bread because we love the 100% whole wheat bread that I make. It just may take a little more practice to perfect. I'll be sharing some things that have helped me in working with whole wheat flour.
Often bread recipes don't give a specific amount of flour. The recipe will sometimes say something like 5-6 cups of flour, or add flour until it makes a soft dough, or add flour until the dough cleans the side of the bowl. What does this mean?
Unlike making cakes or cookies, bread dough's need of flour will vary depending on the humidity of your home. You will use more flour on a rainy humid summer day then on a cold winter day with the heat on. Adding too much flour will make your dough more dry and crumbly.
Start by adding the smallest amount of flour listed in your recipe. Then slowly add flour, a half cup at a time. The goal is a dough which is soft and workable but not sticky and unmanageable. If you are mixing your dough by hand, add flour slowly and work it into the dough before adding more. Use the least amount possible while still being able to handle the dough. You will soon know by feel when you have added enough flour.
If you have a mixer with a dough hook, add flour slowly until the dough pulls from the sides of the bowl. It is important to add all your flour before you begin kneading the dough. Stop your mixer and feel the dough. It should not be excessively sticky but it can feel a little tacky. Peter Reinhart describes "tacky" like a post it note that sticks but quickly releases, while "sticky" lets your finger covered in dough.
When you determine that you've added enough flour, then begin your kneading. The advantage of using a machine to knead, besides being faster and less tiring, is that slightly less flour can be used resulting in a lighter loaf. One way to avoid adding to much flour when hand kneading is to oil your counter instead of flouring it.
That is everything I can think of concerning flour and bread baking. We'll be getting into other subjects, like kneading in another post - plus sharing more bread recipes!