I think I speak for all my colleagues when I say that we occasionally doubt our ability to add value to a cooking technique. But challah was the assignment that really gave me pause.
That’s partly because the enriched, glossy braid is a cultural heavyweight. More than just a fixture at Ashkenazi Jewish holiday tables, it’s a biblically significant bread steeped in age-old rituals, symbolism, and strong opinions. When I polled a few well‑versed colleagues and experts about what qualities challah should have, I received a flurry of disparate answers: The crumb should be fluffy or densely chewy. It should taste rich and sweet (acclaimed food writer Mimi Sheraton once described challah as “a brioche-like confection that falls just this side of cake”) or only slightly so. It should have raisins—or definitely not have raisins.
There’s also the fact that countless challah recipes have been published, and even more get passed through the diaspora via word of mouth and muscle memory. So I wasn’t sure what I—someone who really enjoys challah but didn’t grow up making it—could contribute to the conversation.
But as it turned out, my inexperience was an asset. When I shaped and baked a few loaves to familiarize myself with the process, I zeroed in on challenges that might not faze a seasoned challah baker. For example: the relationship between the workability of the dough and the texture of the baked bread. Moist doughs sagged and stuck together, making messy braids but resulting in a soft, tender crumb. Recipes that tried to solve the problem produced drier, firmer doughs that were easy to handle but baked up dense and a bit tough. Then there was the braiding technique itself: Even the simplest weave takes practice, and the loaf might still bake up misshapen or squat.
What I wanted was a plush, resilient crumb that struck that perfect—but rarely achieved—balance of moderate sweetness and richness; a tall, tidy braid; and a recipe that would win over rookies and experts alike.
As breads go, challah isn’t difficult to make. There’s no starter to feed, the kneading can be done in a stand mixer, and a loaf can be made from start to finish in an afternoon. All you do is combine bread flour, instant yeast, eggs and/or egg yolks, water, sugar, salt, and vegetable oil in a mixer. (Challah is made with oil, not butter, because it is pareve—a Jewish dietary term meaning that it is prepared without dairy or meat products and is, thus, permissible to be eaten with either dairy or meat at a meal.) Once you have a cohesive mass, you knead the dough until it is smooth and pliable and then cover it and let it rise until doubled in size—the visual cue that the yeast has consumed sugars in the dough and released gas that causes the dough to expand. Then you press out the air, which eliminates large air bubbles, encourages a fine crumb, and redistributes the yeast and sugars so they can continue their activity during the second rise. Finally, you divide the dough into even lengths that you roll into long ropes. You braid the strands, let the dough rise again, brush the surface with an egg wash, and bake it until the crust shines like polished mahogany.
Hoping that three whole eggs and 1/4 cup of oil would amply enrich the dough, I homed in on my main focus: how to turn this moist dough into something more workable. The consistency of a dough is measured in percent hydration—the amount of water relative to the amount of flour. During baking, the water turns to steam, which acts as a leavening agent by opening up the crumb so that the bread is light and soft. The hydration levels of the doughs in the recipes I found ranged from 45 percent to more than 60 percent, or about 4.5 to 6 parts water to every 10 parts flour. Doughs at the low end of that range were drier than your average bagel dough, presumably to make them easy to handle, but nobody wants challah with bagel‑like density. The nicest loaves I made came in at 55 to 60 percent, so I considered that my benchmark and got to work on a seemingly impossible task: making a moist dough handle like a drier, firmer dough.
I started by asking myself what helps a dough become less soft and sticky so it’s easier to handle. Part of the answer was a stronger gluten network, the mesh of interlinked proteins that forms when water and flour are combined, giving bread its structure. Up to a point, the more extensive and tightly organized this mesh is, the firmer and less sticky the dough. Since kneading the dough helps build and strengthen the network, I could try kneading for longer. But in the stand mixer, I risked overheating the dough, which can produce off‑flavors when the dough proofs. Instead, I introduced a French bread-baking trick called autolyse, a brief rest between mixing and kneading that we often use in bread doughs. During this rest, enzymes in the flour snip the gluten proteins, helping them uncoil so that they can more efficiently line up and link together. We also help the process along by withholding the sugar and salt—ingredients that inhibit the enzymatic activity—from the dough until after the rest.
With the autolyse, my dough was firmer but not very extensible; when I rolled out the lengths for braiding, they snapped back or even tore if I applied too much pressure. So I next looked closely at the dough’s first rise, known as bulk fermentation. This long rest is crucial for building structure because more gluten develops. However, times vary, and I had admittedly tried a relatively quick 1-hour rest. When I tacked on another 30 minutes, there was no more snapping back or tearing. But the dough was still sticking—to the counter, to my hands, and to itself.
This might have been the point at which I conceded that challah is better left to the experts. But I realized that the qualities I wanted in the dough—malleability and moistness—were the same ones we’d wanted in our Fluffy Dinner Rolls (January/February 2016) and Sticky Buns (May/June 2016). And the solution in those cases—an Asian bread-baking technique called tangzhong—couldn’t have been further from challah tradition.
Free water that hasn’t been absorbed by starch is what makes dough sticky. The gist of the tangzhong method is to cook some of the water in the recipe with some of the flour. Heat causes the starch molecules to separate from each other and absorb more water than they would at room temperature. The resulting gel is then added to the dough. The water trapped in the gel won’t contribute to stickiness, and the upshot is a dough that feels drier and is easier to handle.
I tinkered with the proportions for the gel before settling on ½ cup of water heated with 3 tablespoons of flour. Mixing it with the eggs, oil, flour, yeast, and water made the dough much easier to handle, and when I tried again after removing two of the egg whites (a source of water), the dough firmed up even more. I also decided to see if I could decrease the oil, which softens the dough, and found I could cut it by half and still produce challah that was cotton-candy plush. (But about those raisins: They robbed the dough of its moisture, turning the baked crumb dry. They were officially out.)
For a bakery-worthy braid, I started by rolling the sturdy, pliable dough into four long, even ropes (two- and three-strand loaves look less impressive, but braiding more than four strands is tricky). From here, you typically align the ropes parallel to one another, pinch them together at the top end, weave them together via a series of over-under movements, pinch the loose ends, and tuck the ends under the loaf. But even with four strands, I found that this produced a flat loaf with one bulky end where the tucked dough bunched up under the braid. And, frankly, the braiding process made my head spin.
The solution to the uneven shape was to taper the rope ends to minimize bulk when they were tucked under the loaf after braiding—a trick I learned from veteran challah baker Mike Lombardo at Rosenfeld’s Bagels in Newton, Massachusetts, one of the experts I’d spoken with during my research. Lombardo also introduced me to a braiding method that was easier to follow and produced a loftier loaf: Instead of lining up the strands parallel to one another, which makes them hard to tell apart, point them in different directions so that they’re easier to keep track of. While I was at it, I also tried a braided round that’s traditional for Rosh Hashanah. (See “Round for Rosh Hashanah.”)
I lightly covered the braid with plastic wrap to prevent it from drying out during its second rise. When it was fully proofed, I moved it to a rimmed baking sheet, brushed it with a lightly salted egg wash (salt prevents the egg proteins from clinging to one another, making a looser wash that’s easier to apply), and baked the challah in a 350-degree oven for half an hour. The braid was tall, but the underside of the loaf was too dark. Going forward, I baked the bread on a pair of nested baking sheets, which created an air gap that insulated the underside from burning.
The statuesque, burnished braid hid a crumb that was golden, fluffy, and gently elastic—perfect for slicing thick and slathering with butter. (Leftovers, if there are any, make exceptional French toast or stuffing.) Maybe the challah-baking tradition has room for this new-school baker after all.