Can you ever have too much bread? I don't think so, especially when it's fragrant homemade challah bread. I love the gloriously shiny crust and soft, slightly sweet interior! The chewy texture of this well-flavored bread makes it so tempting fresh from the oven.
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What is a challah loaf and what does it symbolize?
Challah is an enriched Jewish bread that’s traditionally braided and served on the Sabbath. Many things about the loaf are symbolic; for example, the braids represent love and unity. Its exact origins are unclear, but most people agree that modern version started in Eastern Europe during the fifteenth century.
What does it taste like?
Challah has a beautifully soft and fluffy texture with a hint of sweetness from the honey and richness from the eggs.
How to Pronunce Challah
The correct way to pronounce the name is “halla,” kind of like the first part of “hallelujah.”
The round loaf made for Rosh Hashanah is shaped to look like a turban and represents the cycle of the new year. Watch this video to learn how to braid a round challah.
Most brioche recipes contain butter and milk, while challah contains no dairy products so it can be kosher. (Jewish dietary laws forbid eating meat and dairy products in the same meal.) Egg bread is an alternate name for this enriched dough.
Challah is made with olive oil instead of butter, and contains eggs, which increase the protein. You can make it healthier by substituting part of the bread flour for whole wheat flour; just realize that it will make the bread denser and more earthy tasting. Scroll down to the bottom of the recipe to read the nutrition facts.
The braids represent love and unity. The number of strands in each braid also has symbolism: for example, a three-strand braid represents three commandments God gave regarding the Sabbath. A twelve-strand braid represents the twelve tribes of Israel.
Yes, you definitely can add raisins. I'd recommend starting with ½-3/4 cup, and add them when you're first mixing up the dough.
Braiding can be as simple or as complicated as you like! I chose a simple 5-strand braid, so that’s what I’ll demonstrate in the photos below.
- Divide the dough into 5 pieces, then roll each one into a 20-inch rope. Make sure all the ropes are the same length.
- Lay the ropes beside each other. Divide them into one group of 2 strands and another group of 3 strands, keeping the strands touching at the top.
- Cross the 5th strand over and lay it beside the 2nd Then, cross the 1st strand over and lay it beside the 4th strand. Repeat until the whole loaf is braided.
- Tuck the excess under the ends.
Traditionally, Jews serve challah on Friday evening.
They cover two loaves with a special cloth, representing the dew that covered the manna God provided for the children of Israel during their desert wanderings. A special Sabbath blessing is recited over a cup of wine, then each person at the table washes their hands. The cloth is removed, a nick is made in the bread, and the loaves are held up and blessed; “Blessed are you LORD our God, King of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.”
Then, the bread is either torn or sliced, depending on rabbinic tradition. (Not using a knife reminds us to keep the Sabbath peaceful and also brings to mind when God stopped Abraham from killing his son, Isaac, with a knife.) Salt is traditionally served with the bread to remind the partakers of the Temple offerings.
What goes with it?
My favorite topping is softened, salted butter. It really enhances the bread’s sweetness and rich flavor.
How many slices are in a loaf?
It all depends how long your loaf is! If your loaf is 15 inches long, and each slice is ½ inch thick, you’ll get 30 slices.
How do you heat challah bread?
- Oven Method: wrap the bread tightly in aluminum foil to prevent it from drying out or burning, then bake at 350 F for 10 minutes or until warm.
- Microwave Method: this works best for individual slices or chunks, not the whole loaf. Microwave on high for 10-20 seconds, until desired temperature is reached.
Can I make it ahead of time?
- You can make the dough the night before and let it rise in the fridge overnight. Shape and bake the next day.
- Fully baked challah can keep at room temperature for a few days, but it tastes the freshest within 24 hours after baking.
Can it be frozen?
- Yes, you can freeze the baked loaf. Store slices or chunks in an airtight container or zip-top freezer bag for up to 1 month; whole loaves should keep for 2 months. (If you’re freezing an entire loaf, use an extra-large freezer bag.)
- Defrost it by letting it sit at room temperature for 5 hours or so. Don’t refrigerate the bread, as it will go stale very quickly in the fridge.
- It’s not recommended to freeze unbaked dough. It won’t rise as high as freshly made.
How to Make
Gather the ingredients: bread flour, eggs, olive oil, honey, salt, yeast (affiliate), and water.
Pour the flour into a mixing bowl and add the salt and yeast on opposite sides of the bowl. Stir each one in with your finger. (Why do this? If the salt touches the yeast directly, it can kill the yeast.)
Add the eggs, honey, and olive oil. Mix with the paddle attachment on low speed until blended, then gradually trickle in the water while the mixer is running until a sticky dough has formed.
Knead by hand or with the hook on medium low speed.
The dough is kneaded sufficiently when it's beautifully smooth and silky. You'll probably have to add a little flour as you knead to get it smooth. It also should pass the windowpane test. (See the recipe card for a description of this process.)
Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and set aside in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1 ½ to 2 hours. If you lightly smack the top, it should fall back.
Punch down the dough to remove large air pockets, then divide into five equal pieces with a bench scraper (affiliate). Weigh each piece on a kitchen scale (affiliate) to make sure they're around the same size.
Roll each piece into a rope roughly 20 inches long. If the ropes are not rolling out easily, let them sit for a minute or two to relax the gluten, then try again. Aim to get all 5 pieces the same length and thickness.
Braid the challah as desired. (See the photo above to learn how to do this simple 5-strand braid.)
Place the braid on a parchment-lined cookie sheet, cover with plastic wrap, and set aside in a warm place until nearly doubled in size and springy to the touch, about 1 hour. Brush the loaf with a mixture of egg yolk and water.
Stack the tray on top of another cookie sheet to insulate the base and prevent it from burning. Bake at 375 F for 25-30 minutes, until the loaf has an internal temperature of 190 F with a meat thermometer (affiliate). Cover with foil after 10 minutes if it's getting too dark. Let it cool completely on a wire rack before serving.
Tear or slice the challah, and enjoy!
- Use good quality ingredients. It really makes a difference how your bread looks and tastes!
- Don't stretch the ropes of dough as you braid them. This will make the loaf fat at one end and skinny on the other.
- Why is it dense? The loaf probably didn't rise enough before it was baked, resulting in a dense, doughy texture. Next time, let it rise until springy to the touch and almost doubled in size before baking.
- Why is it dry? The loaf was most likely baked too long. Sometimes, it's hard to tell when a loaf is fully cooked, so I like to use a meat thermometer. Poke it into the thickest part of the bread and wait a few seconds. It should read 190 F when the loaf is fully baked.
Other Holiday Breads to Try
- Pulla (Finnish)
- Kozunak (Bulgarian Easter)
- Vánočka (Czech Christmas)
- Kanellängd (Swedish Christmas)
- Rosca de Reyes (Mexican bread for Epiphany)
- Panettone (Italian Christmas)
- Stollen (German Christmas)
Other Sweet Breads You'll Love
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Learn how to make easy challah bread with this delicious recipe. This soft, sweet bread is made with honey and olive oil. It’s surprisingly simple to braid the 5 strands of challah dough into a stunning centerpiece for an Easter brunch or a Jewish Sabbath meal!
- 4 cups bread flour (500g)
- 3 teaspoons fast-action yeast (10g)
- 2 teaspoons fine salt (10g)
- 5 tablespoons liquid honey (106g)
- ⅓ cup light-tasting olive oil (70g)
- 2 large eggs + 2 large egg yolks
- ⅔ cup water (150 ml)
- 1 large egg yolk, for glazing
Making the Dough (25 minutes + 2 hours proving)
- Warm the water to 115 F.
- Place the bread flour in a large mixing bowl and add the salt and yeast on opposite sides of the bowl, stirring in each one with your finger. Pour in the honey, olive oil, eggs, and yolks.
- Gradually add the warm water as you mix on low speed with the paddle attachment of a stand mixer (or by hand), trickling in a little at a time to create soft, slightly sticky dough. You may not need all the water.
- Knead on medium-low speed with the hook for 5-7 minutes, until the dough is smooth, no longer sticky, and has a glossy sheen on its surface. You may need to add a spoonful or two of flour to get the right consistency. (Alternatively, it turn out onto a floured surface and knead for 10 to 15 minutes.) Use the windowpane test to see if it's kneaded enough by pulling off a lump of dough and stretching it between the thumb and forefinger of each hand. If it can stretch until it's translucent without breaking, it's kneaded enough. If not, knead for a minute longer and check again.
- Shape the dough into a ball, place in an oiled bowl, and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Set aside in a warm place until about doubled size, approximately 1 ½ to 2 hours.
Shaping the Challah (20 minutes + 1 hour proving)
- Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured surface and punch it down all over to knock out excess gas. Divide into 5 equal pieces using a bench scraper, weighing the pieces with a kitchen scale to make sure they are equal in weight.
- Roll each piece into a rope about 20 inches long. If you're having trouble rolling out the strands, let them rest for a couple minutes while you work on another strand. This will relax the gluten, allowing them to roll out more easily.
- Line up the 5 ropes side by side, then squeeze them together at the top to join. Split the strands into two groups: a group of two on the left, and a group of three on the right.
- Begin the braiding by crossing over the third strand from the second group and placing it beside the second strand in the first group. Then, cross over the first strand from the first group and place it beside the first strand in the second group. Repeat this process until the whole challah is braided, then pinch the ends to seal and tuck the ends underneath. Gently pick up the loaf and place it on a lightly floured 11 by 17-inch cookie sheet.
- Cover with plastic wrap and let it prove in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1 hour.
- About 10 minutes before the bread is done proving, preheat the oven to 375 F.
Baking the Challah (30 minutes + cooling)
- Beat the egg yolk with a little water to thin it, then brush it on the risen loaf.
- Stack the tray of challah on top of another cookie sheet to help prevent the base from cooking too quickly, then bake at 375 F for 10 minutes. Check the bread without opening the door, and if it's getting too dark, cover it with aluminum foil.
- Lower the temperature to 325 F and bake for another 15-20 minutes. The bread should be a rich golden brown and have an internal temperature of 190 degrees.
- Let the loaf cool completely on a wire rack before slicing and serving to allow the crumb structure to set, about 1 hour. Serve with salt or butter.
- Use good quality ingredients. Especially be sure to use a good bread flour; my favorite is King Arthur.
- Don't stretch the ropes of dough as you braid them. This will make the loaf fat at one end and skinny on the other.
- Dense bread? It probably didn't rise enough, resulting in a doughy texture. Next time, let it rise until springy to the touch and almost doubled in size before baking.
- Too dry? The loaf was most likely baked too long. Insert a meat thermometer into the thickest part of the bread and wait a few seconds. It should read 190 F when the loaf is fully baked.
- Category: Dessert
- Method: Baked
- Cuisine: Jewish
Keywords: easy challah bread, challah bread recipe
This post was originally published on March 27, 2018.