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In this post you’ll learn: what is challah, how to pronounce “challah”, the history of challah, making challah, challah recipes, how to braid challah, tips for cooking challah, storing challah, and “taking” challah.
What is Challah
Challah is the term commonly used for a delicious, braided egg bread. You’ve probably seen it at the grocery store or bakery, and it’s sometimes used as an ingredient on competition cooking shows.
There is a lot of confusion about how to pronounce the word “challah”. Challah is a Hebrew term. In Hebrew there is both a soft H sound like we have in English and a guttural H sound. In the video above I show you how to pronounce challah. The “ch” at the beginning of the word is meant to represent the guttural H sound.
Challah is rooted in Jewish religious tradition. The term challah actually comes from the biblical commandment (Bamidbar (Numbers) 15:20) to bring a portion of dough to the Holy Temple as a gift. That bread/dough that was taken was called “challah”. Today, the term challah has come to refer to the braided egg bread we see in supermarkets and bakeries.
On Shabbat, two loaves of bread are used at each meal. This in remembrance of the double portion of manna that fell in the desert on Fridays (Shemos (Exodus) 16:22). Technically, any type of baked bread can be used. Today, most Jewish families use loaves of challah for their Shabbat bread. However, the braided egg bread we call challah is actually a recent invention. It seems to have started in the 15th and 16th centuries in Germany, and it spread from there.
If you’ve ever made bread at home you’ll recognize the general steps involved in making challah.
First, yeast may be proofed, or added to warm sugar water. This gets the yeast activated.
Next, the dough ingredients are mixed together (including the yeast). The dough is kneaded until it comes together into a cohesive mass.
The ball of dough is left in a covered bowl to go through the first rise. Over the course of about an hour (time varies depending on recipe, temperature, humidity, etc) the dough will double in volume. At this point, Jews making challah will pause to separate challah.
Next, the dough is separated into portions for individual loaves. The dough is shaped, and left to rise a second time.
Finally, after the loaves have gone through a second rise and grown again, they are baked.
Hungry yet? Below I’ve collected a variety of recipes you can try to make your own homemade challah.
Classic Challah Recipes
Williams Sonoma has a challah recipe. Just make sure to use margarine instead of butter so you can serve it with meat meals.
This recipe is large enough to make 2 loaves.
Another 2 loaf recipe for challah.
A great classic recipe from The New York Times.
My “go to” recipe for challah comes from The Kosher Palette cookbook. It’s appropriately called “Delicious Challah”. I use it to make 6 big loaves or 8 smaller ones. The smaller ones are perfect for my family of 4. Sometimes I use the “Heavenly Bread Machine Challah” recipe in this book too.
Whole Wheat Challah Recipes
3-5 loaves of honey whole wheat challah goodness.
2 loaves of simple whole wheat challah.
Honey Challah Recipes
Honey is used for the sweetener instead of sugar in this recipe.
Another honey challah recipe that yields one loaf.
No-egg Challah Recipes
Challah made without eggs is called “water challah”.
Use this no-egg challah recipe to make a big batch.
Here’s another no-egg challah recipe that should yield 6 to 8 loaves.
Up your challah game with a sweet crumble topping.
Top the challah with everything bagel seasoning for a great savory treat.
No list of recipes would be complete without a mention of leftover challah French toast.
You can get very creative with your challah braiding. Here are 3 different braiding techniques for your challah dough. I often make a standard 3 strand braid. Want something fancier? Try the 4 stranded braid technique. For Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot it’s customary to have round challahs. The round braid technique below is my go-to for that time of year.
3 strand braid
4 strand braid
What’s the key to great challah? Over the years, I’ve discovered these tips for making fabulous challah.
- Let your braided challah do it’s second rise on a sheet of parchment paper. Then, when it’s ready to bake, just slide the parchment paper onto your baking sheet.
- For a taller challah, place your braided dough in an oval loaf pan. As the dough rises, it won’t be able to spread width-wise past the walls of the pan, so it’ll rise upwards. This will give you a nice tall loaf.
- Is your challah loaf done cooking? It’s hard to tell. I had my run of disasters making loaves that turned out to still have raw dough in the middle. You can avoid that with this tip: Lift up the loaf (with a kitchen towel because it’s hot), and thump the bottom. A nice hollow thump sound means it’s fully cooked through.
Sometimes I bake challah on Thursday night but we won’t eat it till Friday night. Resisting the fresh bread smell is tough. I store my challah in a ziptop bag with as much air removed as possible. Wait till the challah has cooled to store it. If you make a really big loaf, you’ll want to get the special 2 gallon size ziptop bags.
When I make challah I’m usually making 6 to 8 loaves at a time. We might go through 2 or 3 on a Shabbos, and I need to save the rest for later. Luckily, it’s really easy to freeze challah.
My favorite way to freeze challah is to freeze it before baking. It takes up less freezer space than freezing already-baked loaves. Immediately after shaping the challah, put it on a tray in the freezer. Once it’s somewhat frozen, wrap it completely with plastic wrap and then put inside a freezer zip top bag. When you’re ready to bake it, remove it from the wrapping and place it on a baking tray to thaw. After it thaws the yeast kicks back into action and it will go through the second rise. The whole process can take as much as 8-10 hrs, but it’s hands-off time. You can just go about your day. Once you’re ready, apply an egg wash and bake as usual. Fresh baked challah is the best.
Alternatively, you can freeze your challah after you bake it. When it’s out of the oven, let it cool down completely. This avoids condensation build up in the bag. After it is cooled down, wrap the challah completely in plastic wrap, and then place it in a zip top freezer bag. I use a straw to suck as much air as possible out of the bag before I finish sealing it.
Since the Holy Temple no longer exists, Jews today can’t fulfill the mitzvah, or commandment, of taking challah to the kohanim, or priests. We still observe this mitzvah by removing a small piece of dough from the big batch and setting it aside. This piece of dough should go to the Holy Temple, but since it’s not possible, we burn it instead. This process of separating a small piece of dough is referred to as “taking challah”.
In order to take challah, there are a couple of requirements. First, the flour used has to be one of the 5 grains: wheat, spelt, oats, barley or rye. Also, the dough has to contain a specific amount of flour. There’s a difference of opinion as to how much flour is required. If you think converting ounces to grams is hard, try converting Talmudic volume and weight measurements. You can ask your local orthodox rabbi what he recommends, or follow the guide here. This is another reason why many women favor big batch recipes. If you make only 1 loaf, the amount of flour isn’t enough to be able to do this special mitzvah.