I learned to make bread from one of the great breadmakers of the world, a man who once looked at a half-filled glass of orange juice on the breakfast table and an hour later had it rising in a loaf pan. Not everyone can turn a small container of yogurt, half a jar of mustard or some leftover orange juice into a great loaf of bread as James Beard can, but you can make delicious homemade bread even if you have never tried before.

There's nothing mysterious or difficult about making bread. The entire process can be reduced to three simple steps: proofing (activating the yeast), kneading (mixing the dough), and rising and punching down (inflating and deflating the dough). That's it. Proofing

Yeast is a fungus, a living organism, that is available in dried granules or small compressed cakes. In either of these forms, the yeast is dormant, or inactive. To proof or activate the yeast, simply softenitinwarm water (yeast grows best in a warm atmosphere)and stir until dissolved. It's that easy.

The temperature of the water should be about 100 degrees, which is a little more than lukewarm. A few degrees one way or the other won't matter, but cold water won't activate the yeast and very hot water will kill it. You can test the temperature of the water the same way you would a baby's bottle. However, if you are worried, or have been scared into undue concern by warnings in bread recipes you have read, test the water with a dairy or instantly registering thermometer.

Until recently, yeast was so undependable that the experienced baker tested it each time by mixing it with sugar, warm water and flour and waiting to see if a bubbly frothy foam appeared in about 10 minutes indicating that it was alive. This is no longer necessary. Today, commercial yeast is so dependable you would be hard pressed to find dead yeast.

By the way, half an ounce of fresh yeast is equivalent to one package or tablespoon of active dry yeast. The two are interchangeable.

That's pretty much all you need to know about working with yeast for the master recipe that follows. However, for recipes that use salt or sugar in the yeast, you should know that they must be added in smallamounts, as they can inhibit proofing. Kneading

Kneading is simply the way to mix a dough that has become too stiff to stir with a spoon. Once the bulk of the flour has been stirred in, the dough is dumped onto a terminate composition work surface and manipulated with your hands to incorporate the amount of additional flour necessary to bring the dough to the right degree of firmness. Kneading continues until the dough becomes soft and smooth, elastic and resilient. A fully kneaded batch of dough will feel very much like a baby's rump, or more politely, like an earlobe.

It is impossible to overknead a dough, so if you think the dough could be a little more satiny in feeling, a little more springy and bouncy under your palms, knead it for a little while longer. The final texture of the dough is what's important, not whether the recipe said to knead for 4 to 5 minutes and you kneaded for 8 or 9 minutes.

Now that you know kneading is just another word for mixing, that's all you need to know. Rising and Punching Down

As the yeast grows, it causes the dough to inflate and expand, or rise. Allowing a bread to rise gives the yeast a chance to develop its flavor and the bread time to develop an evenly textured crumb.

A bread should rise until it is "doubled in bulk," which actually means until the dough is 2 1/2 to 3 times its original volume. Usually this takes about two hours at room temperature. To decrease the amount of rising time you can either increase the amount of yeast or proof the dough in a warm place in the house, whereas as much as 12 to 24 hours is necessary in a cooler spot or the refrigerator. Does it matter how long it takes the bread to rise? Not really; what differences will occur are very minor.

When the bread is fully risen, it is "punched down." If you are feeling aggressive, you can literally punch the dough a few times until it deflates, or you can simply press or knead it until no gas remains in the dough.

Some breads only rise once, most rise twice, and occasionally a bread will be allowed to rise three times (the best breads rise three times). But it won't hurt most breads to rise four or even five times, you can just keep punching down the dough until you are ready to shape it.

Should you wish to stop the rising until the next day, simply place the dough in the refrigerator overnight. The cold will retard the yeast growth and slow the rising to almost a standstill. In the morning, just let the dough come back to room temperature and then proceed with the recipe.

Let's quickly unravel the chemical mysteries of breadmaking.

The simplest bread is a mixture of flour, water and yeast and is usually flavored with salt. When you activate the yeast (by mixing it with warm water), it feeds on the flour and gives off carbon dioxide gas, causing the bread to rise. The gas becomes trapped in the elastic web that was formed as the flour and water were kneaded together.

When the bread is placed in the oven, the new warm environment causes the yeast to grow rapidly and the bread to spring up until the gluten strands in the flour dry and become hard, trapping the tiny bubbles of gas in fine pockets that give the bread its final texture. MASTER RECIPE SOUR CREAM WHITE BREAD (Makes 1 loaf or 12 rolls)

This is a rich bread with a hint of acidity in its flavor and a thin, shell-like crust. It is one of the easiest breads to make, it kneads quickly to its final texture, and it bakes well in any shape. 1 package (1 tablespoon) active dry yeast or 1/2 ounce fresh or compressed yeast 1/2 cup warm water (about 100 degrees) 4 cups white flour, approximately 2 teaspoons salt 8 ounces commercial sour cream 1 tablespoon bland oil or butter (for the bowl)

Add the yeast to the water and allow it to soften, undisturbed, while you mix the flour and salt.

In a large mixing bowl, combine 3 cups of the flour with the salt and mix well.

Stir and mash the softened yeast until it is completely dissolved and a fragrant, chalky solution has formed. The yeast is ready to use.

Add the yeast and sour cream to the flour and stir with a wooden spoon to form a soft, shaggy mass of moist dough. With your hands, gather up any small pieces of dough left on the bottom of the bowl and squeeze all the dough together into a ball.

Sprinkle a work surface with 1/2 cup of the remaining flour and dump the dough onto it. Dust your hands lightly with flour and begin kneading the dough. How To Knead

Place the dough in the middle of the work surface and sprinkle it heavily with flour if the dough is very moist and sticky, or lightly with flour if the dough is fairly firm.

(1) With your hands close together, press down firmly with the heels of your palms on the edge of the dough closest to you.

(2) Flatten and extend the dough out slightly by pushing down and away.

(3) Give the dough a quarter turn, fold it in half so that the two edges are closest to you, then repeat step one, pushing down on the two edges so that they adhere.

That's all there is to kneading: push, turn, fold; push, turn, fold, over and over until kneading is complete. It may seem a a little awkward at first, but as enough flour is kneaded into the dough to make it firm and managable, to stop it from sticking to either your hands or the work surface, kneading will become faster and easier and you'll develop a natural rhythm of push-turn-fold, push-turn-fold.

This is a small batch of dough, and so you may find it easier to knead with one hand. Knead in enough additional flour to make the dough manageable and to eliminate any feeling of stickiness. It should be firm yet supple, and should stick neither to your hands or the work surface.

Unfortunately, it is not possible to predetermine the exact amount of flour needed for a batch of dough. The amount depends on such variables as the temperature of the kitchen, the humidity, how the flour is measured, the type and brand of the flour, the texture of the sour cream, etc. A good estimate is that you will use a total of 3 3/4 to 4 cups of flour for this loaf.

Knead the dough for another 6 to 8 minutes so that it becomes very smooth and elastic, so that it feels bouncy and playful under your hands. Should the dough become sticky as you knead, sprinkle it with a little more flour (a tablespoon or so at a time) and continue kneading.

At any time after you have incorporated the necessary flour to bring the dough to the right consistency and firmness, you can stop and give your arms a rest. It takes a lot of energy to knead a bread for 10 minutes, but that's no reason to tire yourself out and become so frustrated that you decide never to make bread again. Just stop and do something else for a few minutes, then return to the kneading. The important thing is to knead the dough enough to form long gluten chains, which is indicated by the increasingly elastic quality in the dough. Whether it takes you 8 minutes or 18 to do this doesn't matter.

The first time you make bread, I think it's important to do it by hand so you can gain a clear understanding of how the dough should feel. However, there are two other ways to make bread, both of which are easier and faster, and either would be acceptable for making your first loaf if you don't feel up to doing it by hand. Using a Food Processor

Proof the yeast as directed in the master recipe. Combine the flour and salt in a heavy-duty processor fitted with the metal blade. Pour in the yeast and sour cream and process until a ball of dough forms on top of the blades.

Instead of kneading, continue processing so that dough bangs around in the bowl. Stop the processor about every 10 seconds and feel the dough. Add enough flour, about 2 tablespoons at a time, to produce a firm dough that no longer feels sticky when pinched.

Continue processing for 30 seconds with the steel blade or 60 seconds with plastic blade. Knead by hand for a minute or two to set the final consistency of the dough.

The dough is now ready to rise. Using an Electric Mixer

To make bread in a heavy-duty electric mixer equipped with a dough hook, proof the yeast as directed in the master recipe. Combine the flour and salt in the bowl of the mixer and secure the dough hook in place. Turn on at slow speed and pour in the yeast and sour cream and allow the dough hook to whirl around until a slightly sticky wad of dough forms and no lumps of dry flour remain on the bottom of the bowl.

Gradually add enough additional flour to bring the dough to the consistency described in the master recipe. Increase the speed to medium and allow the dough to knead by bouncing around the dough hook and by banging against the side of the bowl until it forms the texture described in the master recipe, which should take about 3 to 4 minutes.

The hardest part is now over and the dough is ready to rise. First Rising

Choose a bowl that is large enough to hold the dough when it has risen to three times its present size. Rub the inside of the bowl lightly with a tablespoon of oil or butter; an inexpensive bland oil is best for this, though some purists insist that only butter should be used.

Press the dough down into the bottom of the bowl, then flip it over and press down again. This is to lightly coat the surface of the dough, and to prevent it from sticking to the bowl and forming a dry skin.

Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap (to trap the moisture given off by the dough during the rising) and set it aside to rise until doubled in bulk (which means tripled in volume). This first rising will take about 2 hours at room temperature, only about 1 1/2 hours if the bowl is set in a warm part of the kitchen.

Punch down, deflating the dough completely. Should the dough be soft or sticky at this point, indicating that not enough flour was added during the kneading, knead enough flour into the dough to return it to a firm, dry consistency. Second Rising

Place the deflated dough back in the bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and set aside until doubled in bulk again. This second rising will take about 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours at room temperature.

When the dough is generously twice its original size, punch down.

Do not become impatient and punch down the dough early; the risings are an aging and maturing period for the dough that are essential for the bread to develop its full balanced flavor and texture. Shaping and Baking

Now it's decision time; the bread can be baked in any shape you want. If this is your first loaf, I'd suggest you bake it in a loaf pan. Breads can also be baked free-form, either round, oval, braided, or shaped into baguettes, but baking free-form loaves requires a stiffer dough than the recipe has called for and at least a little experience in shaping, so it is not recommended for your first loaf. Shaping in a Loaf Pan

This recipe makes one medium-size loaf that will fit perfectly into a rectangular 9-by-5-by3-inch loaf pan.

To form the loaf, place the dough on the counter and shape it with your hands into a thick oval shape, bulging at the center, and just a little shorter than the length of the loaf pan. Lift the dough into the air and gently stretch it to form a smooth unbroken top, pulling on the sides and tucking the dough into itself on the underside. Pinch any cracks or seams securely into the bottom of the dough. Place the dough, seam side down on the counter.

Rub the inside and top edge of a loaf pan with a tablespoon of bland oil or butter. Place the dough in the loaf pan, seam side down. With the tips of your fingers, press dough all around the perimeter of the dough so it touches the pan an all sides. Cup your hand and press the dough just hard enough to be firmly packed into the pan with the center bulging upward. The dough should completely fill the pan and have a rounded, convex appearance. If the dough is uneven, or not bulging at the center, squash it down with a flat hand to redistribute the dough into an even, regular shape.

Cover with plastic wrap and set aside to rise until double its original size, until it is almost to the top of the pan, about 45 minutes to an hour.

If you want an old-fashioned looking loaf, one that rises up and mushrooms over the top of the pan, use a smaller pan (about 8-by-4-by-2 1/2 inches in size), and allow the dough to rise until it is 1-1 1/2 inches higher than the edge of the pan at the center of the loaf. Baking

Remember that the bread will rise rapidly when placed in the oven. This final phase of the rising is called the "oven spring" and is caused by the increased activity of the yeast in its new warmer environment. The bread stops rising when the gluten in the flour dries and sets the final shape of the loaf. Often during the oven spring the bread will crack. Unless you have a need for cosmetic perfection, just accept the occasional crack as a promise of homemade goodness in the loaf. It is nothing to worry about. FOR THE GLAZE 1 egg white 1 teaspoon cold water

About 15 minutes before the dough finishes rising in the pan, heat the oven to 375 degrees.

Just before baking the bread, beat the egg white with the cold water, uncover and brush the top of the loaf gently. Try not to let any of the egg white wash drip down the sides of the dough and touch the pan or it will cause the dough to stick in that spot during the oven spring and to rise unevenly. This glaze adds a shiny, thin finish to the bread. It is not essential and can be omitted if you prefer a simpler, unfinished looking bread.

Bake the loaf for 45 minutes. If you want a harder than usual crust, remove the loaf from the pan after 35 minutes and return it to the oven, out of the pan, for the final 10 minutes of baking.

When the bread is removed from the oven, turn it out of the pan and let it cool completely on a rack. Cooling on a rack prevents moisture from forming on the bottom of the loaf. If the bread is cut steaming hot, it will be doughy and soggy in taste and texture. A standard loaf needs at least 30-40 minutes to cool and set its final texture. Shaping and Baking Rolls

Rolls can be baked in many different shapes -- Parker House, butter flake, bow ties and knots, crescents, twists and pinwheels, to name just a few. Here are directions for two of the most popular and simplest -- regular biscuit-shaped rolls and cloverleaf rolls. As you become more experienced as a breadmaker, feel free to experiment with other shapes by following the directions for them in any well-written cookbook. Shaping Regular Rolls

You'll need 4 tablespoons melted butter in addition to the master recipe.

With your hands, roll the dough on a clean work surface, pressing down hard but evenly, to form a long strand about an inch in diameter. Cut into 12 even pieces. I do this by cutting the dough in half, then I cut each of the halves into thirds -- making six pieces, and finally, each of those pieces is cut in half -- making 12 pieces.

Roll each piece of dough between the palms of your hands, squeezing hard to form a ball with as few cracks or seams as possible. Some people find it easier to do this by rolling the dough under the palm of one hand, pressing it hard against a clean work surface. Use whichever technique works best for you.

Brush a baking sheet lightly but evenly with some of the melted butter. Place the round balls of dough on the baking sheet and squash down with the palm of your hand to form a slightly oval biscuit shape. When all of the rolls are in place, drape with plastic wrap and allow the rolls to rise until they appear light and puffy and are doubled in size, about 45 minutes.

Ten or 15 minutes before the dough finishes rising, heat the oven to 425 degrees. Just before baking, uncover the rolls and brush the tops with the remaining melted butter.

Bake until an even, light-brown color appears on the top of the rolls, about 15-18 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool on a rack for at least 20 minutes before serving. Making Clover Leaf Rolls

For a dozen cloverleaf rolls you'll need a standard muffin pan, each section having a 5-6 ounce capacity. If you have a muffin pan with small, 2-3 ounce compartments, make 24 rolls.

You'll need 4 tablespoons melted butter in addition to the master bread recipe.

Divide the dough into 12 pieces as directed in the recipe for shaping regular rolls above. Cut each of those pieces into thirds (if making 24 rolls, cut each piece in half, then into thirds).

Brush the insides of the muffin pan and the metal between the cups with some of the melted butter.

Roll the pieces of dough into balls between the palms of your hands, pressing hard on the dough as you move your hands around in a circular motion.

Place three balls of dough in each section of the prepared muffin tin, then drape loosely with plastic wrap. Set aside to rise until the rolls have doubled in size, about 45 minutes, then brush the tops of the rolls generously with the remaining butter.

About 10 minutes before the rolls have finished rising, heat the oven to 425 degrees.

Bake until an even light brown color forms on the tops of the rolls, about 18 minutes.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool for 2-3 minutes, then turn out of the pan and complete the cooling on a rack (to prevent moisture from accumulating under the rolls), at least 20 to 25 minutes before serving. Variations

After you successfully make your first loaf of bread following the master recipe, you might want to try one of these simple variations:

Whole-wheat sour-cream loaf: When preparing the dough in the master recipe, use 1 cup of whole-wheat flour and 2 cups of white flour instead of the 3 cups of white flour called for in the recipe.

Bear in mind that breads made with whole-wheat flour feel slightly moist and rise more slowly than all-white loaves.

Peppered sour-cream loaf: This is an excellent sandwich bread, particularly good with chicken, turkey, ham and roast beef. Mix 1 1/2 tablespoons of freshly milled coarse black pepper with the flour and salt, then proceed as directed in the master recipe, baking the bread in a loaf pan.

Saffron sour-cream rolls: The use of saffron has recently come back into vogue, and though it is very expensive, you might consider making this saffron bread for a special occasion when you are serving fish. Add a tablespoon of loosely packed saffron threads to the warm water with the yeast, and then proceed as directed in the master recipe. Bake as regular or cloverleaf rolls.

Raisin bread: Excellent with tea or coffee, this bread toasts well. Mix 3 tablespoons of sugar with the flour and salt in the master recipe. When ready to shape, use a rolling pin to roll the dough into a rectangle half an inch shorter than the loaf pan you plan to use is wide (7 1/2-inches for the standard pan recommended in the recipe) and about 18-20 inches long.

Brush the top of the dough with 3 tablespoons of melted butter. Sprinkle with a mixture of 3/4 cup raisins soaked in dark rum, bourbon, or cognac for half an hour, then drained and mixed with 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/8 teaspoon mace, 2 teaspoons grated lemon zest and 1 teaspoon grated orange zest.

Roll the dough up like a jellyroll. When a quarter rolled, pinch the inside edge of the dough against the dough under it so that it holds secure, then roll another quarter way and pinch again. Repeat until completely rolled. Pinch the outside seam together very well so it doesn't burst during baking. Place the dough in the bread pan, seam side down.

Brush the top of the loaf with an egg yolk beaten lightly with a tablespoon of heavy cream to give the bread a dark brown finish.

Bake as directed in the master recipe.

Raisin and pecan bread: Use 1/3 cup soaked raisins and 1/3 cup very coarsely chopped pecan pieces instead of the 3/4 cup of raisins in the variation above.