Challah is the bread traditionally served at the Jewish Sabbath, but why limit it to Friday night? Finely grained, eggy, and tender with a hint of honey flavor, challah is delicious anytime. Burnished and deep golden on the outside, it’s one truly impressive loaf of bread. But this beautiful braid only looks difficult to make. The dough is hardy and forgiving, very little kneading is required, and the braiding involves just four repeating moves.
After years of baking challah, I’ve come up with a favorite version, as well as lots of pointers for the best possible bread.
Use a flour that’s lower in protein. You’ll get a more tender result—the true mark of a homemade challah. I’ve had good luck with all-purpose unbleached flours, such as Pillsbury, Hecker’s, and Gold Medal brands; they’re lower in protein than bread flour, and they’ll give a finer-grained, more cakelike bread. To find out about the protein content of the flour, check the side panel of the bag. It should list three grams of protein per serving.
The dough needs only two minutes of kneading because it gets worked heavily during shaping. The little kneading you will do doesn’t demand a delicate turn of hand—on the contrary, just a bit muscle. If the dough is sticky, don’t worry; just add a little more flour until it’s firm. This stiff consistency actually helps the challah have a very finely grained texture and a very high profile with distinctive, separate strands. It will keep longer, too.
Rolling the strands creates a finely grained crumb. To shape the strands, you’ll roll the dough into six flat pieces first, then roll up each piece like a carpet into a strand. This step is one of the secrets to a finely grained crumb—since air bubbles in the dough are subdivided under the pressure of the rolling pin—and marks the difference between an amateur and a professional-quality challah.
If you’re not sure that the shaped loaf is ready to bake, let it proof a little longer. This isn’t all right for all breads, but challah dough is very resilient. The dough is ready to bake when it remains indented after being gently pressed. Proofing (rising) time will vary a bit according to kitchen temperature.
Braiding is easy—it’s just four repeating moves
Arrange the strands parallel to one another. At one end, pinch the strands very tightly together and then weight the end with a heavy canister. Braid the strands closely. You can also watch a video demonstration of the braiding technique.
1. Move the second-to-the-right strand to the far-left position.
2. Move the far-right strand left over two strands, to the center position (spread the strands apart to make room).
3. Move the new second-to-the-left strand over to the far right position.
4. Move the far-left strand (the same strand you moved in step 1) over two strands to the center position. Now repeat the steps.