What is Challah Bread?
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It's gorgeous, golden and perfect weekend baking project. But what is challah bread, and what makes it so special?
Challah has long been a symbolic centerpiece for a Rosh Hashanah spread. It’s at the heart of many Jewish celebrations, including Shabbat and Purim, but is a comforting—abiet challenging—braided bread worth enjoying year-round.
What Is Challah Bread?
Challah is a Kosher loaf of braided bread. The simple dough is made with eggs, water, flour, yeast and salt. The bread is typically pale yellow in color because so many eggs are used, and it has a rich flavor, too. Some challah recipes call for inclusions like raisins, honey or seeds. It all depends on the celebration and your preferences.
Challah refers to the mitzvah (a blessing or good deed) of separating out a portion of the dough before you begin braiding as a contribution to the Kohen (priest). This commandment is called the hafrashat challah.
Wondering how to pronounce challah? Say it like haa-luh (no ch sounds here).
How to Make Challah Bread
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To make great challah, start with a good recipe like this five-star honey challah from reader Jennifer Newfield of Los Angeles, California. The dough is fairly straightforward—you’ll need to save your patience for the braiding.
- 2 packets (1/4-ounce each) active dry yeast
- 1/2 teaspoon sugar
- 1-1/2 cups warm water (110-115ºF)
- 3 eggs + 2 egg yolks
- 2/3 + 1 teaspoon honey, divided
- 1/2 cup canola oil
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 6-7 cups bread flour
- 1 cup boiling water
- 2 cups golden raisins
- 1 tablespoon water
- 1 tablespoon sesame seeds
Yields two loaves.
A few quality products will make measuring ingredients, stirring the dough, and ensureing an even bake for your challah bread. Here’s what we recommend:
Step 1: Proof the Yeast
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As with any yeasted bread, the first step is always to proof the yeast. This step verifies that your yeast is still alive and ready to create a light and airy bread. To proof the yeast, dissolve two packets of yeast with sugar and warm water. Be sure not to let the water get too hot or it will kill the yeast. Give this a quick stir and let it sit for about five minutes. When the mix gets frothy, it’s ready to become part of your bread dough.
Step 2: Make the Dough
Next, add three eggs and two egg yolks into the bowl of your stand mixer. Add in two-thirds cup honey (use the good stuff here!), oil, salt. the yeast mixture and flour and mix on medium speed for three minutes.
Then add in enough remaining flour to form a soft dough. The dough will be sticky, even if you add in the full seven cups. This is how this dough should be.
Editor’s tip: This recipe calls for bread flour, which has a higher protein content. This protein helps develop gluten which is what gives bread its texture. If you don’t have bread flour on hand, you can substitute all-purpose. If you’re an avid baker, consider grabbing a bag of bread flour, though.
Step 3: Prep the Raisins
If you’re not a raisin fan, feel free to skip this step. If you do want to include them—they’re a great addition to symbolize sweetness for joyous holidays—it’s best to plump them up before adding them into the dough.
Plump raisins up by pouring boiling water over them in a bowl. Let the raisins stand for five minutes, then drain and pat dry.
Step 4: Knead
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Next, turn your dough out onto a floured worktop and knead until smooth and elastic. You’ll know your dough is kneaded enough when you stretch a bit between your fingers and it stretches to form a sort of windowpane. If it tears, the dough needs to be worked a bit more.
When the dough is elastic, knead in the raisins until evenly distributed. Place the dough in a greased bowl, turning once to grease the top. Cover the bowl with a damp tea towel or plastic wrap and let it rise in a warm place. Because there’s a lot of dough, it’ll take about 90 minutes. Here are more tips on proofing if you’re newer to bread.
Step 5: Make Ropes
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After the dough has doubled in size, punch it down (that means just pressing some of the air out of it with your knuckles). Turn the dough out onto a floured worktop and divide into 12 equally sized pieces. You can do this by weight if you’d like—just weigh the dough and divide by 12. Or you can do this by eye. The best way is to first divide the dough in half and then into six pieces per half.
Roll each section into a 16-inch long rope. Then place six ropes parallel to one another on a greased baking sheet and pinch them together at the top.
Step 6: How to Braid Challah Bread
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To braid, take the rope on the far right and carry it over the two ropes beside it, then slip it under the middle rope and carry it over the last two ropes. Lay the rope down parallel to the other ropes; it is now on the far left side. Repeat these steps, starting with that far-left rope until you reach the end.
As the braid moves to the left, you can pick up the loaf and recenter it on your work surface as needed. Pinch ends to seal and tuck under. Then repeat the process all over again with your second set of ropes.
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Editor’s tip: If braiding six strands seems like a bit too much, start braiding with just three strands. Your bread will still be very pretty.
Step 7: Proof Again and Bake
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After all the hard work of braiding, cover the loaves and let them rise until they’re doubled in size—about an hour.
Once the loaves have grown, create your egg wash by whisking the remaining egg whites, a tablespoon of water and a teaspoon of honey together. Brush over the loaves with a pastry brush then sprinkle with sesame seeds. Bake at 350ºF until golden brown—about 30 to 40 minutes. Here’s how you’ll know the bread is done.
Remove from the sheet pan and place on a wire rack to cool before slicing and serving.
Store your bread in a bag or in a bread box for best results. Since it’s scratch-made, it will go stale faster than the loaves you find at the store. If you can’t finish the bread within a few days, you can freeze it.
How to Eat Challah
When it comes to serving challah, you can just slice it and add it to your table’s breadbasket. But you can serve challah up plenty of other ways, too.
- Honey and jam: Drizzle challah with a bit of honey or top with fresh jam. It goes especially well with this recipe.
- Toast it: You can slice up challah just like a regular loaf of bread and toast it up for breakfast or use it for a sandwich.
- French toast: You can turn challah into French toast. This method is especially good when you notice your loaf going a bit stale.
- Bread pudding: Again, if you notice the bread is going a bit stale, transform it into a great bread pudding for dessert.
How to Customize Challah
Challah is made for many Jewish holidays, though the shapes may change.
- Rosh Hashanah: It’s traditional to make a round challah to symbolize continuity.
- Purim: Smaller triangular loaves are made to symbolize Haman’s hat.
- Shabbat: Standard braided loaves like this one are most common.
When you work with a great basic challah recipe, it’s easy to customize it to suit your tastes and the occasion.
- Raisins and dried fruit: Raisins symbolize sweetness and happiness, so include them when celebrating joyous holidays.
- Poppy seeds and sesame seeds: Sprinkle these on top to symbolize the manna that fell from heaven after the exodus from Egypt.
- Add shine: A wash of egg whites and honey can be brushed over the top of the loaf before baking for a shiny, golden crust.
- Zest: Add citrus zest to pump up the flavor.
- Nuts: Toasted nuts add crunch and flavor. Knead nuts in when you would add the raisins in the above recipe.
- Spice: Add some cinnamon, cardamom or other warming spices to the dough. You can add spices in addition to nuts, orange zest and raisins. Add it all!