Glad to hear you want to get into baking! Homemade bread is some of the best tasting things you can make, and where you can save a LOT of money, as store-bought breads are one of the biggest rip-offs on the market! This is what made me start baking - back in '75. And I haven't bought a loaf of bread since '76, unless I would buy one going over to Mom's for her, and I'd tell her that I'd have to put a bag over my head! lol Back then I could make a 1 lb loaf of white bread for 3 cents, and they were selling for over a dollar, and I could make a 1 lb loaf of organic WW or rye for 17 cents, and they were selling for over 2 dollars. About the same rip-offs now, and the flavor is always better from home!
Bread making is an inexact science, but it is a science. There are thousands of recipes for bread using the basics - flour, water, salt, and yeast - and it's amazing how different they can be! The flour can be changed, but mainly it's the times and temperatures that change them - times for kneading, rising, and baking, and the temps in the same things. And not all bread uses bread flour, as you don't always want the increased gluten - a good thing in yeast breads, as it is the elastic that keeps the air in the bread when it rises. But quick breads you want to use AP flour, and sometimes even adding a little cornstarch will help them rise better, as you don't want as much gluten in those. And one of my favorites to make a white bread for a dinner, or a pullman loaf, is artisan bread flour - a flour with a little more gluten, but not quite as much as regular bread flour, but the flavor is fantastic. The flour is actually a little less "white", when you compare it to AP or bread flour, and this is due to the milling techniques, which leave more of the flavorings in it. Unfortunately, it's not available everywhere, unless you buy a 50 lb bag of it, like I did! lol
One problem with not having a mixer to do the kneading is that while kneading on the countertop we tend to add more flour than some breads need (no pun intended), to keep them from sticking to the counter or our hands. When you add enough to make a firm dough, the bread won't be as soft, with an open "crumb" as it is referred to, as you get in a ciabatta, or other breads you want for absorbing soups, gravies, and the like. When making these kinds of breads in a mixer, you add enough flour, to make the dough come away from the bowl about 3/4 of the way, sticking at the bottom - which would be a mess on a countertop! This is also the texture of pizza dough - they would not be able to spin and toss the firm dough you will get kneading on the countertop. You can still make a firm dough, and use it for pizza, but it will be different.
One place you can save a lot of money in bread making is the yeast! Those 3 packs of yeast are rip-offs, though when starting out, that's what most of us use. Once you get hooked, get the 1 lb bags, and keep it in a jar in the fridge or freezer. And to get the best flavor in bread, you'll eventually want to try starting the dough the day before, with a smaller amount of yeast, in about 1/3 of the dough - what is termed a pre-ferment, and has many different names. And if you like rye breads, this is the best way to start them, as it gives a great flavor to them, and it is hard to "overferment" the rye breads, given their strong flavor, while with white breads you have to be careful with this. One of my favorite rye recipes starts the rye up to 3 days early!
Eventually, you may want to try baking with starters, rather than yeast, but you want to try simpler things in the beginning. With starters, the time and temps play a big role, while yeast is more forgiving. It is hard to get a rye bread too sour, but easy with white, or half and half breads, and also easy to get a bland loaf, with little sour.
Adding oil or other fats to breads will help it store longer, but will make the crust softer, and not as crunchy as one with no fat. And adding sugar, molasses, or honey will help the bread rise, feeding the yeast, but it changes the flavor, compared to just using flour. Eggs are more for specialty breads, or sweeter breads, and milk or buttermilk chnage not only the flavor, but the texture as well, making a softer dough. and it also weakens the gluten bonds, so the bread doesn't rise as high. But this is minor, and you can pretty much eliminate this problem by using dry milk in breads - 1/3 c/ of water. The heat used in drying milk does away with most the chemical that does this when fresh milk is used.
I could keep on telling you things about bread, but it's getting late; suffice it to say, you can get hooked on homemade! And, if you are a cookbook junkie, like myself, you might get a bunch of bread books, giving you more ideas than you know what to do with! lol
If there is anything in particular you want, feel free to ask!