Are you even a Jewish home cook if you don’t have a publicly available challah recipe?
I’m not going to sit here and pretend that my challah recipe is wildly different than all of the other standard challah recipes out there. And by “standard,” I simply mean not laced with a strong flavor, like garlic, and not stuffed as is all the rage these days.
What brought me to the point of finally sharing this is that several folks commented that this recipe resulted in my best challah. The key ingredient? White whole wheat flour instead of white all-purpose flour (or Type 550 if you’re in the Deutschland).
Challah is traditionally baked with white all-purpose flour. But as I’ve gotten into baking challah over the past three years, I’ve learned a little about all of the different flour varieties out there. (Baby baker Joe had no idea there was more than one.) I still have plenty to learn. But the gist is that a whole wheat flour is going to be healthier than all-purpose flour.
Now, I don’t cook or bake purely with health in mind. And my challah is no exception. I just genuinely think it tastes better with white whole wheat flour. It’s a fuller flavor that survives on its own without any jam or cream cheese on top. (Don’t get me wrong, it’s good with just about any reasonable condiment on top.)
My Challah Journey
Before getting to the recipe, I want to share a little about my own challah journey in case it might save you some frustrating baking. I first came to challah three years ago. I started with a simple but delicious recipe from Beth Ricanati, author of Braided: A Journey of a Thousand Challahs.
Earlier that year, I had just started trying to better understand my Jewish heritage for the first time in my life. I wasn’t ready to jump into religion by the time the High Holiday season came along, but I was eager to cook some traditional eats.
Luckily, a friend in town was looking to combine meals for a Rosh Hashanah dinner. I happily agreed, grateful for a host who knew what she was doing, and offered to bake a round challah. That’s right, my first challah was actually round––the traditional braiding style for Rosh Hashanah. (It’s round to represent a crown for, ya know, God, or to symbolize the cyclical nature of the seasons.)
It was a nerve-wracking experience. I can be a bit of a perfectionist, wanting to match the image I have of something in my head with reality. When something doesn’t go right, I can get frustrated quickly and fall into a Wolverine-esque rage. Probably my greatest character flaw.
The round challah came out quite nicely in the end, despite my stressing over the braiding and not knowing when the challah was done. It went well enough that I figured I could do it again. This could be how I regularly check in with my Yiddishkeit, I thought.
I started baking challah almost every Friday from thereon out. The process was often an inconsistent ball of frustrating madness. I’d curse and throw the dough against my work surface when something didn’t go right, which was more often than not. Then of course I’d get even angrier with myself for letting my frustrations get the better of me all because I wasn’t a master challah baker within a few months.
I am a silly, ludicrous person, I know.
I’d follow different challah recipes but my dough would stick to my work surface or my mixing bowl. I’d add more flour but then my strands wouldn’t roll. They’d just slide against the flour on my work surface like a lethargic teenager getting dragged out of bed. Braids would crack in the oven and lose their shape.
I held myself to a ridiculously high standard. For some reason it was important to me to be able to knock out a challah with ease. Perhaps I saw it as making up for lost time in exploring my Yiddishkeit. I don’t know.
All I know is that it takes time and experience with dough to develop something of a sixth sense for it––something you’ll see bakers say all across the interwebs. I’d say it took me about two-and-a-half years to develop this sixth sense to a reasonably competent level, meaning I can adjust decently to unforeseen variables, like a warmer or colder kitchen, and I can generally make decisions based on how a dough feels and looks.
That said, plenty of people can also follow a challah recipe and bake a beautiful loaf without practicing every Friday. Maybe you’re one of those people, vastly more talented than I am. Either way, here are some of my favorite tips when working with challah.
Challah Baking Tips
If you’re going to bake with any kind of regularity, invest in a dough scraper. This made kneading by hand much easier, allowing me to keep one hand clean and free from sticky dough while incorporating more flour. It also scrapes the dough off your work surface cleanly so you don’t lose chunks of dough.
Add flour slowly. I’ve seen different recipes suggest adding in your flour slowly, sometimes in 1/4 cup increments––especially if you’re using a stand mixer. But that’s not what I’m talking about. Honestly, I haven’t had any issues adding my flour in one fell swoop. I find it easier, especially with the weight scale.
What I’m talking about is adding in additional flour slowly while kneading your dough whether by hand or in a stand mixer. I started off by hand but now I always use a stand mixer. Basically I’ll just keep an eye on it while it kneads, adding something like a tablespoon of flour at a time if the dough starts sticking to the edges. I’ll use a flat spatula as well to gently pull the dough off the sides of the bowl and make sure it mixes into the ball. But you want to add the flour slowly, because if you add too much, you’ll have a difficult time getting your dough to rise and rolling out the braids later on.
Speaking of the breads, you want to find that perfect balance of tacky but not sticky after letting your dough rise. Ideally you don’t have to put more than a tiny dusting of flour on your work surface, if any, when punching out your dough after the first rise. If you do need to add more flour, again, do it slowly. You want to be able to roll out your braids without them collapsing underneath the weight of too much flour or sticking to your work surface.
Another braiding tip I’ve learned is to flatten your strands by hand to get out all of the air bubbles. Then, roll your strand into itself so that it’s round again. It might look like something of an elongated rugelach. What I do is simply pinch the dough where I can see it coming apart and then roll it out until the crease is gone. You can put a tiny dab of water on your fingers to help close the crease when pinching the dough and even a little olive oil in your palms can help you roll out the strands without them sticking to your hands.
But again, the most important tip is to just keep practicing. Hopefully you’re a more peaceful amateur baker than I was. Thankfully I’m now at a place where baking challah is routine, a welcomed break from computer life where I get to make something with my hands. Whatever role challah comes to play in your life, whether it’s an occasional carbo-fling or a weekly event, know that it’s worth the effort.
Now, finally, onward to the recipe (if you haven’t scrolled ahead already to skip my rambling).
Challah with White Whole Wheat Flour
- 2 1/4 tsp yeast
- 1 tsp sugar
- 1 cup warm water 110F / 45C
- 2 tsp kosher salt
- 1/3 cup sugar or 67g
- 1/2 cup olive oil or 100g
- 1/2 cup honey or 170g
- 5 1/2 cups white whole wheat flour or 745g
- Use a small bowl to mix your yeast, sugar, and warm water. Mix well and let sit for about 10 minutes.
- While your yeast is activating, get a medium-sized bowl and whisk together three eggs, salt, sugar, honey, and olive oil. Your yeast mixture should be foamy after about 10 minutes. If not, the yeast is dead and you'll need to start over. Once it's good, pour it into your bowl with the other wet ingredients. Then, add your flour. (Using a scale makes this process a lot easier and less messy.)
- Gently mix together your wet and dry ingredients. You can then move your bowl to a stand mixer. Start on a low speed before moving up to a faster speed for a few minutes and back down to a low speed. Use a spatula to scrape the dough off the side of the bowl. Sprinkle in about a tablespoon of extra flour at a time if it's still sticky.
- If you're not using a stand mixture, you'll want to continue mixing your ingredients together until it forms a ball. You'll then want to sprinkle some flour over a clean surface. Take your dough out and knead it for about 7 – 10 minutes, adding a little extra flour as needed if it sticks to the surface.
- Once you have a clean ball of dough, place it in a bowl lightly greased with olive oil and large enough so that the dough can double in size. Cover it with towel (use a damp one if you're having trouble with the dough drying out) and let it rest in a warm environment for anywhere between 1 to 2 hours, until it's doubled in size. If my kitchen is cold, I warm up the oven with the oven light and keep the dough in there to rise.
- After the dough doubles in size, punch out the air and pull it out onto a clean surface. You shouldn't need any flour really on your workspace but you can put a light dusting to be safe. Then, cut your dough in half and cut those halves into four pieces. Using a scale here helps keep things even.
- Now you braid. I prefer a four-braid challah because you get the fanciful look of a six-braid without the extra work. No text description of braiding ever worked for me. Instead, check out this tutorial. That's how I braid.
- After you braid, place your two loaves onto a baking sheet and cover up them up to let the dough proof for about another hour. You should be able to poke the dough and see it bounce back, but not all the way.
- Once your dough is ready, pre-heat the oven to 175C or 350F. Use your fourth egg for egg wash to brush over your loaves. Finish by sprinkling poppy and/or sesame seeds on top. I bake with my challah on the bottom rack of the oven, but feel free to experiment. Bake for at least 30 minutes. Give it a few extra minutes if you like a crispy crust. The internal temperature should read at least 88C or 190F when it's finished. After taking it out, let it cool for at least 10-15 minutes before serving.