1. Switch to bread flour if you’ve been using all-purpose flour. It has a higher gluten content, and stretchy strands of gluten are what keep the air bubbles created by the yeast action trapped, so your bread rises higher.
2. Knead the dough sufficiently. If you’re kneading by hand, it’s easy to get tired of kneading after 5 or 6 minutes and quit because the dough looks “okay”, even if the recipe calls for 10 minutes of kneading. Kneading develops gluten, though, so a dough that hasn’t been kneaded as long won’t rise as well.
3. Do the “poke test” to figure out if your shaped loaf has risen enough, instead of relying on the time estimates given in the recipe. Your house temperature, the temperature of the liquid you used in the recipe, and the type of yeast you use all affect rise time. The poke test is simple: poke a finger about 1/2″ into the dough. If it springs back immediately, it needs to rise a little longer. If it springs back more slowly, leaving just a little indentation, it is ready to bake. If you poke it and it doesn’t spring back at all, or worse yet, deflates, you’ve let it go too long and it is overproofed. Overproofed dough won’t rise further in the oven, and will even shrink down a little.
4. Use the type of yeast the recipe calls for, or make appropriate adjustments to yeast amount and rise times. There is active dry yeast, and instant yeast, also called bread machine yeast, or quick rising yeast. Instant yeast needs less rising time, making it easy to overproof if you don’t adjust rise times accordingly. I wrote a post on substituting instant yeast for active dry.
5. Check your oven temperature. Ovens often run hotter or colder than the temperature on the dial. Mine runs consistently 25 degrees hotter. Burning the top of some loaves of bread was what finally made me go out and spend the $5 or so an oven thermometer costs.
6. Double-check your recipe. It could be that the recipe you’re using has an error. If it came off the Internet, was it a recipe with reviews? If it came out of a cookbook, are other people having problems with that recipe/cookbook? Sometimes if you do a Google search of the cookbook and recipe title together, you’ll find bloggers who have made the same bread. Comparing the recipe with other recipes for the same type of bread can help you figure out if the general proportions are right.
7. Keep trying! There are a lot of factors in making bread, one of which is personal taste. Try to figure out what you’re not happy about, for one. Letting bread rise for a longer time at a lower temperature (say, room temperature instead of a warm oven) will give the dough time to develop more flavor. Some people like bread made with only flour, salt, yeast, and water, and some people like bread that has oil, eggs, sugar, or other ingredients. Try different recipes, and tweak one thing at a time when making changes, to see what really makes a difference.