For the ninth lesson of our Better Baking Academy with Bob’s Red Mill, we’re taking on an enriched bread dough steeped in history and tradition: challah. Rich with eggs and often beautifully braided, challah is served during many Jewish holidays and for Shabbat. For Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, challah is shaped into an intricately knotted round loaf, symbolizing continuity. Our challah recipe uses Bob’s Red Mill Artisan Bread Flour, a high-protein flour that ensures our expertly braided challah maintains its shape during baking and packs a delightfully chewy bite. This lesson goes deep on shaping, showing you step- by-step pictures of the braiding process, as well as taking a look at how to make the preferment, called poolish. We promise that by the end of it, you’ll be weaving challah with the best of them. Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson, or keep scrolling to view our digital lesson.
Before you get to baking, be sure to enter our Instagram giveaway to win a prize pack of baking essentials you’ll use in this lesson. The giveaway closes on September 30, 2020, so hurry to enter!
Great recipes require great ingredients. Find out how each ingredient helps make golden, elastic challah dough.
WATER: Instead of a combination of milk and water, we use just water to hydrate and bind our dough, which keeps this bread kosher. (See Kosher Baking below.) The temperature of the water (85°F/29°C to 90°F/32°C) is cooler than a typical dough would call for. As you mix and knead the dough, it heats up with the activity. A warmer dough (around 80°F/27°C) will have a shorter fermentation period, proofing before the flavor has properly developed. In short, the cooler water helps ensure a slower rise, creating a smooth dough that’ll bake up into challah with a finer crumb.
ACTIVE DRY YEAST: Yeast is essential to all bread doughs. It needs food (sugar and carbohydrates), warmth (water temperature and room temperature), and moisture for proper fermentation.
BOB’S RED MILL ARTISAN BREAD FLOUR: We opt for using Bob’s Red Mill Artisan Bread Flour for a couple of reasons. First, the high protein content of bread flour makes the dough more elastic and lighter, allowing your dough to proof at a steady rate. This elasticity is especially important when shaping your dough, as the braided round you’re creating will need flexibility. Bread flour helps the loaf maintain its shape during baking. Lower- protein flours, like all-purpose or pastry flour, won’t give your dough the stiff gluten strands it needs in order to keep its distinct woven pattern in the hot oven. Finally, bread flour imparts a chewy crumb to your loaf, a key feature of traditional challah.
GRANULATED SUGAR: The sugar we use has little to do with sweetening the dough—that’s what the honey is for. Instead, we use a small amount of sugar to tenderize the dough, creating soft, pliable challah.
KOSHER SALT: The ratio of salt to flour in breads needs to be 1.8% to 2% by weight. That means it’s important to weigh your salt, because different salt crystals measure differently. Dough without enough salt easily overferments. Salt enhances flavor, increases shelf life, and helps with crust color.
EGGS: One of the most essential ingredients in challah, eggs are the secret to the loaf’s signature rich texture and royal golden color. The extra fat from the yolks helps coat the gluten strands developed in the dough, shortening them to create the super light and tender interior. The high ratio of eggs to flour also means that your challah will have a distinctly custard-like flavor. Keep in mind that your eggs must be room temperature so they don’t affect the temperature of the dough.
EGG YOLK: As mentioned before, eggs are key to the richness of your challah. We add an extra egg yolk to boost the color and flavor without an additional egg white to dilute the flavor or adjust the moisture content of the dough.
VEGETABLE OIL: A typical enriched bread will use butter as the fat, but challah is not your typical enriched bread. For a recipe that adheres to the kosher tradition (see Kosher Baking below), neutral vegetable oil is used instead of a dairy product. The oil helps provide a moist crumb to the bread dough while its neutral taste allows the eggs and honey to remain the dominant flavors.
HONEY: The final star ingredient of our challah is honey. The bulk of this challah’s sweetness and flavor comes from honey. Historically, sugar was expensive and not readily available to bakers; instead, honey was often used to sweeten challah, particularly for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. We use a conservative amount of honey in the dough because too much honey can cause the bread to burn in the oven.
In honor of challah’s roots as a ceremonial Jewish bread, we made sure this recipe can be used by people adhering to a kosher diet. For the layman and curious, here’s an explanation of what that entails.
Derived from the word kashrut (dietary law), “kosher” is a term that signifies that food has been prepared in accordance to laws set forth in the Torah, specifically in the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus. Adhering to a kosher lifestyle is a multifaceted practice, with extremely detailed explanations of which foods are kashér (fit for consumption) and what is considered treif (Yiddish for “torn”). Depending on the branch of Judaism, kosher diets are either strict or lenient, with much gray area in between. The key feature is that meat and dairy must be prepared and cooked separately and never consumed together. For this reason, many baked goods in Jewish tradition are made sans dairy, such as milk or butter. Our challah recipe does not call for any dairy products. Eggs—ones specifically from kosher chickens—are allowed to be used so long as they do not have spots of blood in them. Bakers who keep kosher often check their eggs individually for any spots of blood before mixing them into their dough. Whether you practice a kosher lifestyle or not, making challah is a wonderful way to learn about the ancient religious practice.
Our tender, golden challah is a brilliant homage to the lovely rounds served during Rosh Hashanah. This hypnotic round shape signifies no ending or beginning—a continuous, whole year. To keep that beautiful shape firm and the crumb chewy, we used Bob’s Red Mill Artisan Bread Flour. Meanwhile, sweet honey and rich eggs impart a decadent, traditional flavor to the enriched dough.
- 1 cup (240 grams) lukewarm water (85°F/29°C to 90°F/32°C), divided
- 2¼ teaspoons (7 grams) active dry yeast
- 5⅓ cups (677 grams) Bob’s Red Mill Artisan Bread Flour, divided
- 2 tablespoons (24 grams) granulated sugar
- 1 tablespoon (9 grams) kosher salt
- ¼ cup (56 grams) vegetable oil
- ¼ cup (85 grams) honey
- 3 large eggs (150 grams), room temperature and divided
- 1 large egg yolk (19 grams), room temperature
- 1 tablespoon (15 grams) water
- In the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk together ½ cup (120 grams) lukewarm water and yeast by hand until dissolved. Add 1 cup (127 grams) flour; using the paddle attachment, beat at low speed until combined, about 30 seconds. Cover and let rise in a warm, draft-free place (75°F/24°C) until doubled in size, about 30 minutes.
- Add 4 cups (508 grams) flour, sugar, and salt to yeast mixture.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together oil, honey, 2 eggs (100 grams), egg yolk, and remaining ½ cup (120 grams) lukewarm water. Add oil mixture to flour mixture. Switch to the dough hook attachment, and beat at low speed until a smooth, slightly tacky, elastic dough comes together, 5 to 6 minutes, stopping to scrape sides of bowl and dough hook; add up to remaining ⅓ cup (42 grams) flour, 1 tablespoon (8 grams) at a time, if needed. Turn out onto a very lightly floured surface, and shape into a smooth round.
- Lightly oil a large bowl. Place dough in bowl, turning to grease top. Cover and let rise in a warm, draft-free place (75°F/24°C) until doubled in size, 1½ to 2 hours.
- Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
- Punch down dough, and turn out onto lightly floured surface. Divide into 4 portions (about 298 grams each). Roll each portion into a 22-inch-long rope. Place ropes in a hashtag pattern (over, under, over, under). Begin with any “under” rope, and moving clockwise, cross it over adjacent rope. Repeat with next rope until you get back to the beginning. Repeat procedure, moving counterclockwise. Repeat procedure, alternating clockwise and counterclockwise, until all dough is used. Tuck ends under, and place loaf on prepared pan. Cover loosely with greased plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm, draft-free place (75°F/24°C) until puffed, 1 to 1½ hours.
- Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C).
- In a small bowl, whisk together 1 tablespoon (15 grams) water and remaining 1 egg (50 grams). Generously brush loaf with egg wash.
- Bake until golden brown and an instant-read thermometer inserted in center registers 190°F (88°C), 35 to 45 minutes, covering with foil 15 minutes through baking to prevent excess browning. Let cool on pan for 10 minutes. Remove from pan, and place on a wire rack. Serve warm or at room temperature.
A POOLISH PRIMER
A look at how to make poolish, the prefermented secret to our challah dough.
WHAT IS POOLISH?
Equal parts flour and water and a bit of yeast are mixed together and allowed to ferment in a warm, draft-free place (75°F/24°C) until doubled in size. This fermentation period creates a very fluid mixture, resembling a liquid sponge (hence its other common name of sponge). The benefits of poolish are manifold. A dough that uses poolish will have a decreased mixing time and will, thus, be softer and more elastic. It will also be easier to shape and handle. The fermentation lends the dough a superior flavor, too, as the flavors are allowed to mature before proofing. Finally, the amino acids created during the preferment process will lead to the magical Maillard reaction, creating a beautiful and flavorful golden crust on your bread.
1. In the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk together ½ cup (120 grams) lukewarm water and yeast by hand until dissolved. Add 1 cup (127 grams) flour; using the paddle attachment, beat at low speed until combined, about 30 seconds. For poolish, it’s important to remember that the amount of water and flour are almost equal in weight, not volume. A baker’s math is primarily focused on the gram weight, not the cup measurement, so be sure to weigh your ingredients before making your poolish. When first mixed, it’ll look like a shaggy dough.
2. Cover and let rise in a warm, draft-free place (75°F/24°C) until doubled in size, about 30 minutes. Half an hour gave our poolish enough time to ferment (the process by which yeast consumes sugar and produces alcohol and carbon dioxide) into a spongy mixture honeycombed with bubbles of carbon dioxide. If you leave your poolish to ferment for too long, 2 hours or more, it’ll become “overripe”—the yeast will begin to kill the gluten and make your overall dough tougher and harder to handle.
You’ve mixed and bulk-fermented your dough; now comes the fun part: shaping your challah into a beautiful braided round.
1. Punch down dough, and turn out onto lightly floured surface. Your challah dough will be lightly sticky, but you don’t want to overdo it with the flour on your surface. If you use too much flour, the dough will absorb it and become tougher. Plus, too much flour on your surface will keep you from rolling your dough into ropes.
2. Divide into 4 portions (about 298 grams each). To ensure that no rope for your challah is longer or wider than the other, weigh each piece to make sure they’re equal portions.
3. Roll each portion into a 22-inch-long rope. You want your dough to be equally long ropes so that you don’t find yourself stretching your strands as you weave. Rolling the dough out doesn’t stress and tear the dough like stretching does. Roll from the center out. If your strands keep springing back to shorter lengths, let dough stand for 5 minutes. This will allow the gluten to relax and make rolling into long ropes easier.
Learn how to weave this challah dough into a gorgeous braided round.
1. Place ropes in a hashtag pattern (over, under, over, under). This tic-tac-toe board pattern will create eight strands to work into a woven pattern. If your strands are sticking too much, sprinkle them lightly with flour to make them easier to work with.
2. Begin with any “under” rope, and moving clockwise, cross it over adjacent rope. Repeat with next rope until you get back to the beginning. Unlike a simple braid, where you weave strands constantly over and under, moving in a circle ensures you’ll only be moving your eight strands over, not under. Pick a clear starting point, like the “under” strand closest to you, so you can keep track of your progress during weaving.
3. Repeat procedure, moving counterclockwise. Switching the direction of your circle makes the classic woven pattern. Use your chosen starting point as your guide for when this counterclockwise circle is complete.
4. Repeat procedure, alternating clockwise and counterclockwise, until all dough is used. As you move along, you’ll notice your center hashtag disappear into a lovely woven knot.
5. Tuck ends under, and place loaf on prepared pan. Cover loosely with greased plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm, draft-free place (75°F/24°C) until puffed, 1 to 1½ hours. After you gently tuck your ends under, you can slightly plump up the sides to make sure it’s a nice round. All you have left before you bake is a final proof and an egg wash.