Straight-up perfect challah, passed down from a rabbi friend. It's classic, adaptable, forgiving, and has a knack for turning around the longest of weeks. Here's how to make your own perfect challah, with lots of pictures (and encouragement).
For braiding techniques and lots more, see my Complete Guide to Baking Challah.Yum
This is the challah I made against all the odds.
I was in the thick of first-time motherhood with the kind of baby who considered sleep strictly optional; I had a dissertation to write; my husband was gone from 6 in the morning until 8 at night. I had never seen my mom, or anyone else, bake challah. Back then there were just finicky, fresh cakes of yeast to be had: Don't bother, it'll never rise. I had little personal experience of observing Shabbat to draw upon, except for what I had sought out for myself as an adult.
The day I baked my first challah, it wasn't because the stars aligned. Everything was a mess, especially me. I did it because I had to. I needed to make something tangible, something quixotic. Something to set apart this coming day from the ordinary. Something for my perfect, exasperating baby to hold in his yet-unformed memories.
And then, I just kept doing it. Week after week, bleary-eyed, I baked challah. I memorized the recipe. I ran out of eggs, then found a workaround. I tried whole wheat, I tried honey. Word was getting around that our house was the place to be on Friday night. That's the power of fresh-baked challah.
A challah-baking pep talk
The original recipe begins, "On Thursday night..." It was handed down to me by a rabbi friend and has long since been adopted as the official challah of my clan. Of all the many things that that first challah has given me, one of the biggest is this: yes, you should start; and yes, you will get better; but right now, where you are, it's more than good enough. I hope you'll try.
In bread baking, you'll get a lot of futzy oughts and musts. I think of it first and foremost as something humble and intuitive. I have made every possible mistake in challah making and except for a few total catastrophes (forgot to turn the oven on, cassava flour), they have all been better than the bakery's. The only crucial thing in challah baking is enough time, at bare minimum an hour and a half before it needs to be ready (though more is better).
A run-through of the challah-baking process
Part of the joys and comforts of bread baking are the predictable, but ever miraculous, way breads unfold in time. Here's a walk-through:
- Mixing challah dough - This is when you pull out all your ingredients, wake up the yeast in some warm, sugary water, mix everything together, and knead it into a smooth, supple dough, by machine or by hand. This is also when you'll take challah if you are making a large enough quantity of dough to qualify (more on that below).
- Rising the dough - Leave your finished dough to rise in volume, about 2 hours,.
- Shaping the dough - This is the fun part when you get to divide up your risen dough, roll snakes, and braid (plait) them into the characteristic braid that says, "challah!"
- Proofing and baking - While you heat up the oven, you leave the shaped loaves to rise just a little longer, about half an hour, before brushing with egg wash and baking for about 35 minutes.
Details and tips below, then the master recipe.
Mixing challah dough
Mixing the dough takes me about ten minutes using a stand mixer. I've found that late Friday morning is the ideal time for my schedule; your mileage may vary. You're going for a rise time of between 2 and 5 hours.
Two tools that are helpful in mixing the dough are a 2-cup liquid measuring cup for activating the yeast, and a kitchen scale so you don't have to measure out cups of flour. Neither are crucial, nor is the order in which you add the ingredients into the mixer bowl.
Give the dough a glance every few minutes as you're mixing it. You want to see it begin to pull away from the sides of the bowl and form a lump around the dough hook. If it's still sitting in a puddle near the bottom of the mixing bowl, add a bit more flour, ¼ cup at a time. If the dough hasn't come together, add water, one tablespoon at a time. How much water or flour it'll need will vary from day to day and depends on stuff like the humidity in your kitchen, the ambient temperature, El Niño, and whatever else. Just keep poking at it till it's soft but not tacky.
Once the dough is more smooth than craggy, balled up and climbing your dough hook, doesn't stick to your finger when you poke it, and holds an indentation (like in the photo above), you're ready to rise.
A note on taking challah
My recipe doesn't use enough flour for the mitzvah of hafrashat challah--separating a small amount of the dough and burning it, in reference to the korban (offering) once brought to the Mikdash (Jerusalem Temple). If you'd like to do that or your custom requires, you can double the recipe. Even using double the amount of flour, about 10 cups or 1 ½ kg, there are various opinions on whether you'd take challah with a bracha (saying the blessing) or not, so consult if needed.
Let the challah dough rise
Make sure to cover your dough tightly when you leave it to rise, using cling wrap / beeswax wrap, or a silicone lid if you've got one. This prevents a dry skin from forming on the rising dough; in my experience, a kitchen towel doesn't do the trick. I recommend leaving the dough to rise inside your (turned-off) oven. Just don't forget to take out the rising bowl before preheating the oven (thereby melting your silicone lid, ahem, maybe that's why I don't have one anymore).
Because it's an enriched dough with added eggs, oil, and sugar, your challah dough isn't going to rise as fast and tall as a plain, lean loaf of bread. You want it to look noticeably bigger and puffed, but don't sweat the doubling thing. If you've forgotten about it for a few hours, you're probably good and ready to shape.
Shaping the challah into a three-strand braid
My favorite braid to make is a 4-strand, which is super easy and intuitive once you get the hang of it, promise. I enjoy making 5- and 6-strand braids for my challahs when I have the time, but many weeks, I stick with a simple 3-strand braid. This is the same kind of braid you might have done to your best friend's hair at a sleepover when you were a kid.
I first divide my big lump of dough in half using a bench scraper—any sharp knife works too. Then, I cut each half into three roughly equal parts. You can, instead, divide the dough into quarters and then further subdivide each of those into thirds, to make smaller "kiddush-size" loaves (if you want to have two whole loaves for each meal). It's also nice for sending your guests home with a baby challah.
Some people like to start the braid in the middle for more uniformity. I start by pinching the three strands at the top and braiding down from there. You'll bring the strand on the right over the center strand, then the strand on the left over the central strand, then repeat. I like to tuck the ends under the loaf when I transfer them to the baking sheet.
Proofing and baking the braided loaves
After braiding the loaves, leave them to rise under a clean kitchen towel for another 20-30 minutes while you preheat the oven, or however long you've got. (If that time is zero, just soldier on. I realize this is bread-baking heresy, but sometimes Shabbat comes in at, like, 4:30 p.m.) Before putting the challahs in the oven, use a pastry brush to brush some beaten egg over the braided loaves. You can sprinkle them with sesame or poppy seeds if you like.
At 350°F / 180°C , my challahs take about 35 minutes to bake. Experience will teach you if they need a few more minutes or less, but generally you want the egg wash to be golden and for the loaves to feel solid. You can pop an instant read thermometer into the thickest part of your challah: you're looking for a temperature of around 200°F / 90°C.
More challah recipes
Perfect Challah (parve)
- Stand mixer fitted with dough hook attachment (see notes for hand mixing)
Activate the yeast:
- To the bowl of your stand mixer (or a large mixing bowl), add the sugar or honey. Add 1¼ cup warm water to the measuring cup - warm, meaning it's comfortable to touch with your finger. (You can use either hot tap water, or mix ½ cup boiled water with ¾ cup cold tap water.)
- Stir to combine the sugar and water (the sugar won't dissolve entirely). Add the yeast to the bowl and stir again.
- Set aside for 5 minutes to allow the yeast to get foamy.
Mix the dough:
- Directly on top of the foamy yeast, add the 5 cups of flour. Fit the bowl onto the stand mixer with the dough hook and set it on "stir" (the lowest setting).
- With the mixer running on low, tip in the eggs, oil, and salt. Continue mixing until the ingredients are well combined.
- Once the dough has started coming together, turn up the speed to 2 and let the machine knead the dough for 10 minutes. Check every few minutes to see if the dough is too wet (like a cake batter) or too dry (crumbly or thumping loudly around the bowl). The consistency of the dough will change significantly as the machine kneads it.
- If the dough is too wet, add more flour to the mixer bowl, ¼ cup at a time. If the dough is too dry, add more water, 1 tablespoon at a time (it doesn't need to be warm).
Leave the dough to rise:
- When the dough is supple but not sticky and holds the indentation of your finger when you poke it, it is ready to proof (rise). Cover tightly with cling / beeswax wrap or a bowl lid and leave in a warm part of your kitchen, such as the inside of your (turned-off) oven.
- The dough will rise slowly, but should be puffed and noticeably bigger after about 2 hours rise time, up to about 5 hours.
Shape and proof:
- Preheat the oven to 350°F / 180°C. Line one light-colored baking sheet with parchment or a silicone baking mat.
- Turn out the proofed dough onto a lightly floured surface. Using a bench scraper or a sharp knife, divide the dough in half (for two loaves; for kiddush-sized, see note below).
- Set aside the half you're not working on, then further subdivide the portion in front of you. For a three-strand loaf, cut it into three roughly equal pieces using the bench scraper or knife.
- Roll each of the three lumps of dough into a rope about 1" / 2.5cm thick and 12" / 30cm long and tapered at the ends.
- Lay the three ropes side by side, then bring the tapered ends together and press firmly to join.
- Braid (plait) the rope by bringing the right-hand strand over the middle - the rightmost strand has now become the new middle strand. Next, bring the left-hand strand over this new middle strand. Repeat until you get to the end of the braid.
- Join the ends of the strands together at the bottom and tuck firmly under. Transfer loaves onto the prepared baking sheet, cover with a clean kitchen towel, and leave to proof (rise in its final shape) for half an hour or so.
Bake the challahs:
- In a small bowl, scramble an egg with a teaspoon of water. Brush over the challah. Sprinkle with sesame or poppy seeds, if desired.
- Bake the challah for about 35 minutes, until golden and well risen.