How to Ace Making Challah Bread
Our favorite baker shares his challah knowledge so you can braid a glorious loaf for Rosh Hashanah—or anytime.
Maybe you've become a regular bread baker this year and you're looking to expand your repertoire. Or maybe you always bake bread when the weather turns cooler (what better fall pastime is there?). Whatever the reason, you're thinking about trying your hand at making a loaf of challah, a traditional Jewish bread made from an enriched, eggy dough that is often braided and coiled, with some shapes having religious and cultural significance. Round challahs, like the Apple-Honey Challah shown here, are served on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, to signify the cyclical passage of time.
As our guide to all things challah, we are lucky to have Jason Schreiber, baker extraordinaire and author of Fruit Cake: Recipes for the Curious Baker ($32.50, amazon.com). Schreiber has worked with Martha and the food editors on many baking projects. Here, he shares his bread-baking expertise.
How Is Challah Different to Other Breads, Especially Brioche?
Basically baking challah is just like making any other bread, Schreiber explains. "The dough is mixed, fermented, shaped, risen, and then baked," he says. Like brioche, challah is an enriched bread, which is "a fancy way of saying the dough contains fat, eggs, and sugars, which tenderize the dough to create a soft, even crumb." To be a true brioche, the dough has to contain butter, which makes it decadently rich. "Challah, on the other hand, can be made with butter or vegetable oils, which is important if you are keeping kosher and avoid serving milk and meat in the same meal," he says. Challah is also a slightly leaner dough than brioche, usually made with a little more egg and a little less fat and sugar, which makes it more dinner-friendly.
What Type of Flour Is Best for Challah?
"By weight, flour is the most prominent ingredient in a bread dough, so the type of flour you use can have a huge impact on what comes out of your oven," Schreiber says. Most challah recipes are made with either all-purpose or bread flour, which has a higher amount of gluten (the protein in wheat that gives dough its structure). And either type of flour can make a delicious challah, "but it's best to use whatever the recipe calls for, at least when you're starting out," Schreiber advises. He also notes that experienced bakers may want to experiment with other flours like spelt, whole wheat, or even buckwheat flour, to add extra flavors to their doughs.
Can You Use Any Type of Yeast?
Schreiber has sensible and also surprising information about yeast: "For all its complexity, yeast is actually a very forgiving ingredient once you know how to work with it." The caveat is that you need to know how to work with yeast, how to adjust the amounts and rising times to compensate for the substitution, before you start experimenting so if you're a beginning bread baker it's best to stick to the type of yeast called for in the recipe.
How Much Rising Does It Need?
Enriched doughs often benefit from an overnight rise in the refrigerator, which slows down the activity of the yeast, improving the flavor of the dough and making it much easier to shape. Schreiber notes that "rising times for yeasted doughs are only guidelines and can be significantly impacted by the temperature of your kitchen and the strength and age of your yeast," and he recommends always using visual cues rather than a timer to know when the dough is ready.
What Does an Ideal Challah Dough Look and Feel Like?
"Challah dough should be soft and stretchy but not at all sticky," says Schreiber. "It should also be resilient, easy to form into a tight ball, and, when risen, should be light, full of air, and soft like a foam pillow."
Braiding and Other Ways of Shaping Challah
It's easier to shape into dramatic braided loaves, and that says Schreiber is what sets challah apart from other enriched breads. He's a fan of braiding and says even the simplest braid will take your challah from beautiful to stunning. For a simple three-stranded braid, he suggests beginning the braid in the center by crossing two strands of dough in an X-shape over the center of a third strand. Then work outwards from the center, braiding the dough as you would a rope, first in one direction and then the other, this produces an evenly shaped loaf.
What Tells Me the Loaf Is Done?
Similar to other breads, a fully baked challah should have a deep, golden brown crust, be firm to the touch, and release easily from the baking sheet. When you flip the loaf over and tap the underside it should sound hollow. "If you want to be scientific about it," says Schreiber, "The center of the loaf should read about 200°F on an instant-read thermometer."
How Long Will Challah Keep, and What's the Best Way to Store It?
It's likely that you won't need to worry about your loaf getting stale—homemade bread generally goes fast and that's a good thing because like all bread, challah is best the day it's baked. To extend its life a day or so, Schreiber says store in it an airtight container at room temperature. For longer storage, slice the loaf and freeze in an airtight container for up to two months.