Challah is a bread that’s near and dear to my heart. As a fairly assimilated Jew growing up in California, traditional foods like challah were some of the strongest links to my culture. Whether it was the 3-strand challah made from Bridgford frozen dough on Fridays at preschool, or the plain, raisin, or rainbow sprinkle-covered challah we picked up at the local bakery, or the round, honeyed loaf for Rosh Hashanah, I loved them all.
Challah in Judaism
For observant Jews, challah, a slightly sweet, yeasted bread enriched with eggs, is enjoyed on Shabbat and during major holidays—except for Passover, when leavened bread is eschewed entirely. Practices around the baking, blessing, and eating of challah vary by religious denomination and individual family practice. As a fourth generation Reform Jew and a fourth generation born in California, I’m a bit fast and loose with the rules.
Oh, and if you’re wondering why most recipes make two loaves of challah, the answer is religious in nature. It symbolizes the double portion of manna that fell from heaven every Friday in honor of Shabbat, when the Jews were in the desert.
It’s still traditional to make two loaves at a time, but my family of three can’t get through that much bread, so this recipe makes one generous loaf.
My Ideal Challah
Every Jewish family has its ideal version of challah. Setting out to make my own recipe, I asked my mom what hers would be.
She said, “Not quite super doughy, soft, with a glistening crust, not overly yeasty in flavor, and an even texture through the whole loaf, not denser at the bottom. And it should be pale yellow because it's egg bread.” That sounds right to me, and I am happy to say that this recipe makes the challah of both of our dreams.
A good challah’s rich and lightly sweetened dough speaks for itself and doesn’t need much in the way of adornment. It should be moist enough to enjoy without butter and delicious with a spread of jam. And of course, next-day French toast is always a treat, if you have leftovers.
The Dough Will Be Wet
I like to make challah with a dough that’s easy to work with, but with a high hydration. This means a high ratio of water to flour, by weight.
It will be fairly wet and sticky. When it comes time to shape and braid your challah, you’ll want to sprinkle your work surface and dough with a decent amount of flour so that the dough doesn’t stick to everything. It’ll make it easier to handle, and you’ll have a beautiful, braided masterpiece.
How to Proof the Dough
For a consistent, fairly speedy rise, I like to proof the dough in a slightly warmed oven. I preheat it for a minute, then turn it off.
You can proof the dough on your countertop, but the rising times may vary depending on the temperature in your kitchen. The ideal temperature for proofing this dough is 75ºF to 100ºF—the higher temperature will speed up the rise. A lower temperature will give you a slower rise. A properly proofed dough will double in size.
So Many Shapes and Sizes
This recipe is for a braided 3-strand challah. You can certainly play with the dough to make a more intricate loaf. 5-, 6-, 7-, and even 12-strand braids are common.
For Rosh Hashana, a round challah is traditional, either made from one long strand of dough coiled into a circle or from many strands woven together. You can also make mini challot (plural for challah), shaping them into mini braids or rolls.
Tips for Braiding Challah
Some beginner challah makers have trouble keeping the size of the braid consistent from beginning to end. You will end up with a more evenly shaped braid if you keep these tips in mind:
- Keep the strands of dough fairly slack so that no part gets pulled and ends up thinner. Be gentle with the dough without stretching it out as you go. Rather, drape the strands gently over each other. Don’t be tempted to stretch the dough towards the end to get a longer loaf—just stop when you’re out of rope.
- Tuck each end of the braided loaf underneath itself, pinching and crimpling the dough with your fingers so that it stays securely tucked. This way, the braid won’t unravel during baking.
Other Ways to Make Challah
These days, you can find challot far more flamboyant than the basic bread of my childhood. I still prefer a simple loaf without any fillings—save for raisins on occasion—topped with sesame seeds or teensy, round, rainbow-colored sprinkles, not the oblong jimmies. Here are some variations you can try:
- I use honey and olive oil—I love the extra flavor they impart. For a more neutral flavor, use equal amounts of sugar and vegetable oil.
- Some challah recipes call for saffron. Steep it in the warm water added to the dough.
- Raisins are another common addition. Add about 3/4 cup to this recipe.
Dreamy Treats that Use Leftover Challah
- For the dough
- 2 large eggs, at room temperature
- 2/3 cup warm water, at 110°F to 115°F
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 3 3/4 cups (450g) bread flour, plus more for shaping the dough
- 1/4 cup clover honey
- 1 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast
- 2 teaspoons Diamond Crystal kosher salt or 1 1/4 teaspoons Morton kosher salt
- For the egg wash
- 1 large egg
- 1 tablespoon water
- 3 tablespoons sesame seeds, poppy seeds, or rainbow sprinkles (optional)
- Stand mixer
Make the dough:
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, add the eggs, water, and oil. Whisk on medium speed just to combine, about 30 seconds. You can also mix the mixture with a fork.
Switch out the whisk for a dough hook attachment. Add the flour, honey, yeast, and salt. Knead the dough on the lowest, slowest setting for 10 minutes, until you have a pliable, stretchy dough. The dough will be fairly wet and sticky.
Proof the dough:
Use a firm rubber spatula to scrape down the sides of the bowl so that the dough forms into a ball in the bottom of the bowl. Cover the bowl with a silicone lid or plastic wrap.
Place the covered bowl in a slightly warm spot in your kitchen to proof for about 1 1/2 hours, until the dough has doubled in size.
For a speedy proofing environment, I like to preheat my oven to its default temperature of 350ºF for 1 minute, then turn it off and place the covered bowl inside. The oven temperature rises just a bit, to 90°F to 100ºF. It’s the perfect temperature to kickstart the proofing process.
Line a large sturdy baking sheet with parchment paper. Set it aside.
Divide the dough:
Turn the dough out onto a well-floured work surface. Sprinkle the top with just enough flour so it doesn’t stick to your hands. Pat it out into a rectangle and use a bench scraper or knife to divide it into 3 equal pieces. Roll each piece of dough into an 18-inch rope.
Pinch together one end of all 3 strands. Tuck the pinched seam under just a bit to hide it.
Braid the dough
Start with an outer strand and bring it over the middle strand. Then take the outer strand from the other end and bring it over the middle strand. Continue this process—outer strand over middle strand, alternating sides—until you get to the end of the braid.
Try not to pull or stretch the dough as you braid. Pinch the end of the strands together and lightly tuck the seam under.
Proof the dough again:
Carefully transfer the braided dough onto the parchment-lined baking sheet. I cradle the dough with a bench scraper in one hand and my hands on the other end. This helps keep it from stretching out or getting warped during transfer.
Cover the challah loosely with plastic wrap.
Place the challah in a slightly warm spot in your kitchen to proof for about 45 minutes. It should spring back when gently poked.
Preheat the oven to 350°F.
Brush with egg wash:
Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk together the egg and 1 tablespoon water.
Use a pastry brush to coat the challah with the egg wash. Working quickly, while the egg wash is still wet, sprinkle the sesame seeds, poppy seeds, or sprinkles liberally over the challah, if using.
Bake the challah:
Bake the challah for 30 minutes, until golden brown on the outside. An instant-read thermometer poked into the center should read 195ºF.
Gently slide the challah onto a wire rack. Let it cool for at least 2 hours or as long as you can stand to wait.
Challah will keep, covered, on the counter for a few days. For longer storage, wait until the challah is fully cooled, place it in a zip top freezer bag, and store it in the freezer for up to 2 months. Let it thaw on the counter for a couple hours before serving.
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