I am certainly not an expert breadmaker, just someone who happens to love bread and has been making for years, with generally good results and a few disasters. Making your own bread is incredibly rewarding and the entire process is peaceful, once you get the hang of it.
For those of you who are intimidated by bread recipes, here are some of the tips I've picked up along the way. Feel free to ask questions in the comments and I'll answer.
Ingredients - at its most basic, you're looking at flour, yeast and water. Most recipes throw in a teeny bit of sugar and a few teaspoons of salt. Fancy-schmancy recipes add eggs and milk and flavorings. It really doesn't matter - the concept is the same.
Flour - I use all-purpose flour and frequently substitute some whole wheat flour (up to half and half, usually). I don't recommend going completely whole wheat unless the recipe calls for it. Whole wheat flour is coarser and a bit of white flour helps keep the texture of the bread workable. Not all white flours are equal (King Arthur brand is known for having a higher gluten content, which makes it great for bread making) but don't stress yourself out about it. You can make excellent bread with just about any flour.Recipes - bread recipes are pretty similar, once you get used to the formula. You generally mix the wet ingredients with the dry, let it rise, punch it down (and possibly shape it) and then let have a second, usually shorter, rise before baking. Easy, right? The problem is that some bread recipes assume you know this formula and they don't give you much explanation.
Yeast - I use active dry yeast, which is what you'll commonly find in the grocery store baking aisle. It comes in packets or in a little tub. Unless you are a dedicated bread maker, you probably won't use up your tub before it expires. Get the packets and store them in the freezer. There are other yeasts you can use and I'm sure they're wonderful, but so far I haven't had any experience with them.
Water - Most recipes specify lukewarm water. Some even note that it should be 110 degrees. If the water is cold, the yeast won't become active. If it's boiling, you'll kill them off. Before you start stressing and break out the thermometer, just dab a bit of the water on your wrist. It should feel comfortable - neither warm nor cold. That's good enough.
Proofing the yeast - this means exactly what it says. You are testing out the yeast to make sure it's still viable before you use it. You can skip this step (and some recipes do) but I prefer to know the yeast is working before I start putting the effort in. You just need to mix the yeast into a bit of lukewarm water with a pinch of sugar (might be a folktale, but I was always taught that a little bit of sugar helps the yeast) and wait about 5 minutes. That's it. If the mixture is starting to foam a bit, then you know your yeast is good. Go forward.I highly recommend working with your mistakes. I've had dough that didn't rise and I've finally just tossed it in the oven in desperation. Sometimes it even comes out well. Funny looking bread still tastes good, so don't worry about appearances - shaping takes practice.
Building up the gluten - flour contains gluten, which contributes to the unique texture of bread. We build up the gluten by mixing and kneading, which is why you never want to overmix your cake or cookies - you lose the delicate texture and end up with bread-like product. To get a good start, I use my stand mixer for the initial mixing of the wet and dry ingredients and let it work the dough for a while. You can also do this by hand with a wooden spoon. When the dough forms a ball (if you're using the mixer) or is thoroughly combined (if you're doing it by hand), it's time to move onto kneading.
Kneading - I really don't think you can do this wrong. I did a quick search and found this helpful video on Epicurious. I don't knead the bread with exactly this method, but it's very similar - I think everyone has their own style. I enjoy the kneading process, because it gives me time to think and just enjoy the moment. In general, dough takes about 10 minutes of kneading.
Rising - Shape your dough into a ball and put it in a bowl (usually with a light coating of oil). Set it in a warm place and let it double in size. Times are all approximate. On warm days, your bread will rise more quickly. I'll usually search out a little patch of sunlight and put the bowl there, to facilitate the rising. If there's no warmth to be found, I'll just set it on the stove top (turned off) in hopes that the pilot light will help it along. Unless it's actually freezing, your dough will eventually rise. Cover the bowl with a damp towel or a piece of plastic wrap to keep it from drying out.
Punching down - Less violent than it sounds. I usually just push it down with my fingers, turn it out of the bowl and knead it a couple times to get it back in a ball shape and then put it back. At this point you'll either shape it according to the recipe or let it sit for a second rise.
I certainly don't make bread everyday (or even weekly, anymore), but having it in my arsenal is hugely helpful. And as much as I love the product, I find I enjoy the experience of making bread even more. It isn't quite like anything else you do in the kitchen.
Questions? Extra advice? I'll respond to all of it in the comments.