I'd like to try my hand at baking my own bread. Do I need a bread maker to get decent bread? Are there any advantages to using a bread maker vs. my normal oven?
You absolutely don't need a bread maker for good bread. They have been making bread for at least 22,000 years and I promise, in the vast majority of those, having a bread maker would have gotten you stoned as a witch (if you had electricty to run it). However, a good bread maker will vastly cut down on the time you have to spend making bread. Basically, bread by hand requires a few hours and lot of physical kneading to develop the gluten that gives bread it's structure and in a bread machine, you dump the ingredients in, turn it on and walk away, then come back and enjoy some fresh bread.
i agree that you do not need a bread machine, but that it does make things vastly easier for the person new to breadmaking.
BUT... you also do not need to do a ton of kneading. i've been recently into the "no knead" type of peasant breads, and they are rocking my world. this is the recipe that started it all. this is very very easy, but if you're unsure, by all means start with a bread machine and move up to this: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/08/dining/081mrex.html
one last suggestion: don't spend a lot of dough (haha) on a bread machine. there are plenty of perfectly good machines to be found in thrift stores. i recommend the Breadman brand if you can find one -- i used one for 8 years, and liked it so much i picked up a second one as a backup in a thrift for $5.
Instead of investing in a bread machine, which I own and never use, invest in the resources to become confident with your dough. I seriously cannot say too much about The Bread Baker's Apprentice. If you own a spoon, a bowl, and an oven (ideally also a pizza stone, but a sheet pan will do in a pinch), you can start making bread with this book that is 10 times better than anything that has ever come out of my bread machine. It is not for everyone, however. Many of the loaves require two days, some require three. For something simpler, a family member who has sworn by her bread machine for years now swears by Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day for almost equal convenience and much better flavor.
I have a stand mixer, but sometimes skip the kneading by dough hook, which is simple as stated, for the joy of kneading by hand. You have no idea how relaxing it is to spend fifteen minutes working dough after a long day of work if you haven't tried it yet. And in my mind little in the kitchen tops the feeling of shaping a boule or dinner roll into a neat, tight ball.
What a bread machine will get you is convenience. The only time I would consider using one is if I wanted to be able to throw ingredients into my bread machine in the morning, set it on a time bake setting, and come home to warm bread at night. Even though making bread by hand is not very hands-on intensive, you do need a few hours to catch it after the various rise times.
I haven't used one before, so I can't say they are not worth it, but I got good bread without one, so you don't really need it. I think a oven stone is a better idea.
First: Don't be scared to knead by hand. It doesn't take that much effort, is relaxing and, if you don't like it, you can use the NYT recipe linked by franko. Or any variation, like the 15 second kneading recipe that also replaces part of the water with beer, for better taste. Also, you don't need a dutch oven. Anything with a lid (like pyrex) that can go in the oven should work.
What I really recommend you is a oven stone and a peel. They're not really necessary, but for 50$ you'll see a big improvement, even when the dough is not as good, rested or proofed as it should (I'm not recommending you to try that, but I've been in a hurry and the stone has really surprised me saving the day).
If you don't want to invest money yet, try the NYT recipe or one for focaccia
Bread machines only make loaves the shape of the container. If you want to make a boule, baguette, flatbread, etc, it can't do it. They can be used for mixing the dough, but then you have to finish it by hand, so at that point, you're only using it for mixing and kneading the dough.
But there's other stuff that can do the kneading, if you're just trying to skip that step. I'd invest in something that can serve other purposes, too:
A stand mixer. Does a great job kneeding, although if you put in too much, it can climb out of the bowl when you're not looking.
A food processor with a dough blade. Doesn't hold as much as most stand mixers, but it'll get the job done, and it can deal with really stiff doughs, like pasta. You can even use the regular metal blade for really wet doughs, like brioche.
For quick breads (all chemically leavened breads, such as banana bread and soda bread), you don't need to knead them, so you just need a mixing bowl and something to bake in or on. And there's the no-knead recipies. For years I've been making a great hand and cheese yeast bread that's basically just stir & dump in the pan.
Sure a bread machine isn't needed, but it's still very convenient. Kneading yourself is fine if you do bread once in a while, but we use our bread machine every day, so kneading would still represent a lot of time.
Also there are so many recipes for bread machines available, so it's quite easy to get a different bread every day. All it takes is 5 minutes to put the ingredients together, and the bread is done on its own during the night.