Challah Bread Recipe

Challah/Photo by Leo Gong © 2009

When I asked my friend and primary recipe tester, Marlene Newell, who runs the site cookskorner.com, to contribute a post during bread month, a challah recipe was the first bread that came to mind, and I’m delighted it did, because I love the soft, egg-rich crumb and flavor, probably my favorite of the non-lean doughs. This is Marlene’s favorite recipe and it comes from one of the foremost bread teachers and writers about bread in the country, Peter Reinhart. If you don’t know about him, you should!  See Peter’s blog, as well as his other site and soon to be show, Pizza Quest. “This is my best challah to date,” Peter wrote to us in an email, “and I don’t think I can top it.”—M.R.

by Marlene Newell

The Jewish Sabbath and holiday bread got its name in South Germany in the Middle Ages,  where it was adapted by the Jewish people as its Sabbath bread.

Surrounded by folklore and tradition,  the bread is typically braided, with the number of braids representing different virtues.  For example, 3 braids symbolize  truth, peace and justice.

I love to bake bread.  I find it soothing and am at peace when I do it.  It’s even better to make it on a snowy morning like this one, kneading and rolling and watching the snowflakes drift down.

I am not Jewish, but Challah is one of my favorites.  Not only is the dough extremely versatile (it can be made into loaves, braided, and makes wonderful dinner rolls as well as outstanding French toast the next day), but it is a fairly simple dough to make and if you braid it, it looks spectacular and is sure to impress your family and friends at the table.

The bread is egg rich and wonderfully soft, with a crisp outer crust.  If you think you are braid challenged,  shape it into loaves or dinner rolls, but honestly, braiding isn’t hard to master (I’ve included pix at the bottom of this post).

Start with three strands.  You can get into more strands as you gain confidence.  Begin in the middle and  cross the left strand over the middle, then the right over the middle.  Continue this pattern till you reach the end, then pinch then ends together and fold underneath.  Then simply turn the loaf around and repeat the process.  It can be braided right on the pan you intend to bake it on.

I am a fan of Peter Reinhart’s bread books, and this recipe comes from his Artisan Breads Every Day.  It’s a two day process (the overnight rest in the fridge gives it great flavor), but if you want Challah the same day, he also has a recipe in Bread Baker’s Apprentice that only takes a day.

Peter Reinhart’s Challah

  • 2 ½ cups/510 grams lukewarm water about 95 degrees F./35 degress C.)
  • 1 ½ tablespoons/14 grams instant yeast
  • 8–10 egg yolks or 170 grams depending on weight of yolks
  • 5 tablespoons/71 grams vegetable oil
  • 6 tablespoons/85 grams sugar, or 4 ½ tablespoons/96 grams honey or agave nectar
  • 1 tablespoon/21 grams vanilla extract (optional)
  • 7 ½ cups/964 grams unbleached bread flour
  • 2 ½ teaspoons/19 grams salt or 4 teaspoons/20 grams coarse kosher salt
  • 1 egg white for egg wash
  • 2 tablespoons/30 grams water for egg wash
  • 2 tablespoons/20 grams sesame or poppyseeds for garnish
  1. Combine the water and the yeast in a mixing bowl or the bowl of a 5-quart mixer and whisk together to dissolve.  Add the egg yolks, oil, sugar, and vanilla, if using, and whisk together to break up then add the flour and salt.
  2. Using the paddle attachment, mix the dough for 2 minutes on the lowest speed.  Let the dough rest for 5 minutes.
  3. Switch to the dough hook and mix on medium low for 4 minutes.
  4. Use a floured bowl scraper or floured hands to transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface, sprinkle the top lightly with flour and knead by hand for a couple of minutes until the dough is soft and supple.  It should be tacky but not sticky.
  5. Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, or divide the dough in half or in as many portions as you plan to bake,  and place in oiled bowls.  Cover and immediately place in the refrigerator.  The dough should rest at least overnight and can be kept refrigerated for up to 4 days.

On Baking Day:

  1. Remove the dough from the fridge approximately 2 hours before you plan to bake.  Transfer it to a lightly floured surface and cut it into the desired number of braids you want to use or shape into loaves, or dinner rolls.
  2. If you are braiding, flatten each piece with your hand, then roll into cigar shaped lengths.  Roll each piece once, then return to the first piece to roll it into a rope approximately 10 to 14 inches/25-36 centimeters long.  Make sure it will fit on your baking sheet! (See pix below.)
  3. Roll each piece to the same length then braid.  Place the loaves on sheet pans lined with parchment paper.
  4. Make the egg wash and brush each loaf with the wash.   Reserve the rest of the wash in the fridge, and let the loaves rise uncovered for about an hour. They will not have risen much at this point.  Brush the loaves again with the egg wash and sprinkle with poppy seeds or sesame seeds or a combination of both.
  5. Let the loaves rise for another hour until they increase to about 1 ½ times their size.
  6. 15 minutes before baking, pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees F./177 degrees C. or 300 degrees F./149 degrees C. for convection.
  7. Bake for 20 minutes, then rotate the pan and bake for another 15 to 30 minutes, until the loaves sound hollow when thumped on the bottom and the internal temp is around 190 degrees F./88 degrees C. in the center.  If you used a whole egg wash, the crust will get darker than with the egg white wash, so don’t be fooled into thinking the bread is done until it passes the thump and temperature test.
  8. Cool on a wire rack for at least 45 minutes before slicing and serving.

Recipe – Makes 2 large loaves or 4 small ones.

Variations: If you want to use whole eggs instead of yolks in the dough, reduce the water by 2 tablespoons (1 oz/28.5 g) per egg. The yolks are the key to the attractive color and also make a major contribution to the soft texture because they add fat and lecithin, which tenderize the bread. The whites add protein; while that’s a good thing, they also dry out the bread. Also, feel free to add another tablespoon or so of honey or sugar if you prefer a sweeter bread.

Reprinted with permission from Peter Reinhart’s Artisan Breads Every Day: Fast and Easy Recipes for World-Class Breads by Peter Reinhart, copyright © 2009. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc.

Braiding technique (photos and bread by Marlene):