Craft the Perfect Challah

Best tips and tricks for the ideal loaf

Online Jewish Week Columnist

Most people have their favorite recipe. Whether it’s been passed down for generations, found in the back of a well-thumbed (and well-stained) cookbook or received from a friend just last month, challah recipes are not hard to come by.
You have your favorite, and that’s fine. I have a recipe too, but I’m not looking to convert you. I’m just looking to help you make the best challah possible.

Here are some things that doom perspective challah makers:

  • Dead yeast: If you’re not sure how long that packet of yeast has been lying around, chuck it. Store your yeast in the fridge, and be very conservative when it comes to sell-by dates. Proof your yeast in warm water with a little sugar before adding your other ingredients. If after 10 minutes, it isn’t bubbly and smelling strongly of yeast, you need to buy a new jar.
  • Not enough rising time: Bread can’t be rushed. I know you’re probably really busy, with a load of laundry in and your kids running out the door and you’re late for an appointment - but that doesn’t mean you can stick the challah in the oven early. Let the dough rise in two stages - once after mixing and once after shaping - for 45 minutes to an hour, and longer in the winter.
  • Cutting: All that kneading and mixing you’ve been doing is not for waste - you’re developing gluten strands. So don’t negate all your hard work by ripping apart the challah and breaking all those strands. When it comes time to divide the challah for braiding, use a sharp knife or bench scraper to cut the right-sized pieces, resulting in less breakage to your proteins.
  • Shaping: Challah is braided, right? Right (mostly). But your pigtail-making techniques are not going to come in handy here: the best looking challahs are based on 4 strands, not 3. This is a helpful guide. And make sure you seal the ends so all your hard work doesn’t unravel in the oven. A good way to accomplish this is to use the sides of your hands to gently saw through the ends of the braided challah about a centimeter from each end. This will effectively seal all the strands together.

Here are a few things you should be doing:

  • Flour: Yes, you can make challah with all-purpose flour. But why would you when bread flour is available so easily, and makes a superior product?
  • Precision: I’ve baked in cups for a long time. It’s easy. But guess what - so is weighing. And it’s much more accurate. Invest the $20 for a scale - you’ll get precise measurements, you’ll be able to follow recipes down to the last gram, and your taste buds will thank you.

Well, I’ve armed you with the knowledge, and I’ll give you a recipe to get started if you don’t have your own. In weights, of course!

Challah – makes 3 large loaves

 320g/11 ounces water
 80g/3 ounces sugar
 12g/0.5 ounces salt
 60g/2 ounces oil
 100g/3.5 ounces eggs (approximately 2 large eggs)
 800g/28 ounces bread flour
 12g/0.5 ounces instant dry yeast
 Egg, for brushing
 Sesame seeds (optional)
Add the water, sugar, salt, oil and eggs to a large bowl.  Top with the flour and yeast. Mix well, in a mixer with a dough hook attachment or with a wooden spoon. Mix on low to moisten all the ingredients, then on medium for about 8 minutes until the dough has completely gathered together and is worked well. By hand, it should take 10 to 12 minutes of kneading, and the dough should spring back when poked.
Remove the dough from the bowl or mixer, on to a lightly floured surface. Dust with flour, cover with a cloth or plastic wrap, and let rest for 45 minutes to an hour. When you poke the dough now, it should hold the indentation.
Using a knife or bench scraper (do not rip by hand), and working on a floured surface, divide the dough in to 3 equal pieces. Take one of those pieces, then cut in to 4 equal pieces.
Working with one piece at a time, flatten it out in to a rectangle, then roll up tightly, pressing to seal, in to a cylinder. Roll out in to a long thing rope. Continue with the remaining pieces.
Press the 4 ropes together at the top to seal, then braid in the following pattern: 4 over 2, 1 over 3, 2 over 3, repeat. The numbers reset after every turn, so there is no keeping track of which piece is which.
After braiding, brush with the egg wash (reserve what is left) and let rise for an additional 30 to 45 minutes. Brush again with the egg, top with sesame seeds if using, then bake on 160 C/320 F for 30 to 40 minutes. Let cool.

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Last Update:

08/22/2013 - 13:38

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I like the tip about cutting the dough vs. tearing it. Unfortunately, I found this recipe just minutes after tearing my own dough (oops!). I hope it still comes out with a nice texture. I like to use more eggs, and I also activate the yeast with sugar and warm water for about 10 minutes like another reader advised. Thank you for the great tips.

I learned long ago that adding the salt in the begining retards the action of the yeast. My method takes longer. The secret is in the time and rising you let the yeast and dough do their thing. I do the entire process by hand, not a bread machine or a Kitchen Aid.
Use whatever ingredients you wish, but use the following timeline:
1) Mix the warm water, yeast and sugar and let stand for 15 minutes. The yeast will bubble and form a froth on top of the water.
2) Add about 3/4 of the flour, mix well. This will form a somewhat sticky semi-firm "sponge". Leit rise for 1 hour.
3) Add the salt, oil, and eggs, mix and start adding the flour, kneading the dough until the right consistency is achieved.
4) Place dough in oiled bowl, cover with towel. Let rise for 40 minutes.
5) Punch dough down (do not knead,) cover with a towel and let rise for another 40 minutes.
6) Braid the dough (I do it in six braids) and let rise for one hour.
7) Pre-heat oven (and a baking stone) 375 F.
8) Glaze challas with egg, sprinkle on poppy or sesame seeds and bake challas for 35 minutes.
The longer rising time and adding the salt later in the process makes the dough very soft. I do this also with 100% whole wheat flour (King Arthur) and the challas are as soft and delicious as white flour challas.

I don't understand why a recipe is given in ounces when normally we deal with cups and teaspoons/tablespoons. Very confusing! How much is 28 ounces flour? Something is wrong.

First, I want to say that I'm not a baker. But I like bakers. I respect them. I'm jealous of their accumen, knowledge, and wisdom. That being said, well, I'm hungry for this. That being admitted, I'm a little confused. The 45 minutes of rising, described here: "Let the dough rise in two stages - once after mixing and once after shaping - for 45 minutes to an hour, and longer in the winter." I assume that there is are two 45 minute periods? I base that on the following:
"After braiding, brush with the egg wash (reserve what is left) and let rise for an additional 30 to 45 minutes." But I wasn't a 100% sure. Secondly, I am slightly more confused about what exactly to do with the rectangles, here: "Working with one piece at a time, flatten it out in to a rectangle, then roll up tightly, pressing to seal, in to a cylinder. Roll out in to a long thing rope. Continue with the remaining pieces." But I promise you that I will, sometime soon, buy some challah.

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