I let my bread dough rise in four stages: sponging, in the bowl, resting, and in the loaf pan.
Sponging is a method using your room temperature wet ingredients (water, oil, honey, eggs, milk, etc.), half of the flour the recipe calls for, yeast, mixing them all together and allowing it to stand for 10 minutes. This gives the yeast a head start and softens any bran in my wheat flour, yielding a lighter, softer wheat bread.
In the bowl, oiled and covered, and in my unheated oven with a bowl of hot water underneath it. I live in Utah, where at higher elevations, bread dough rises quickly. My bread doubles in bulk in 20 minutes. When is it double? When you take two fingers and lightly touch the top of your dough. If it tries to come back up, it needs more time. If it stays indented, it is double and ready for your next step.
After I take it out of the bowl, I divide my dough into piles. Two piles for 2 large loaf pans, or three piles for 3 medium loaf pans. The dough is very elastic at this point and difficult to roll out, so I shape the piles into balls, eyeball them to see if they are all approximately the same size, cover them with plastic wrap and let them rest for 5-10 min. Why? The dough is resistant and tight. If I try to shape or roll it, the dough will tear, pull, and cause holes in my dough.
After the 5 min. resting period, the dough is ready to be rolled or shaped. I use a rolling pin to get rid of the excess bubbles that form during the rising period. Nobody wants "Swiss cheese" bread, right? The dough is then shaped and put into the loaf pan for the final rising period, which in Utah, is usually 20 min. The dough should rise to approximately 1" above the pan. You can do a "double" test by lightly pressing your pinkie finger in the corner; if it tries to "pop" back up, give it some more time. If it stays indented, it is ready for the oven.
So now, all my rising times add up to 60 min. Each time I let the dough rise, the dough rises more quickly, resulting in a higher, lighter loaf. No more loaf "bricks" that are hard, dry and crumbly!
Can you let the dough rise too long? Yes! The gluten strands in your bread are like rubber bands, and if they get past their "breaking" point, you can't put it back together. Your dough will collapse and become extremely sticky. I have tried to "resurrect" this type of dough and haven't been successful.
Can bread rise in the fridge? Yes, but it will take longer, and may develop a "sour dough" taste. You need to make sure the top of the loaf is oiled and covered with plastic wrap; any air that has access to your dough will cause it to dry the dough, leaving a "skin."