Of all the recipes that have been passed down through the generations in our family, steeped in tradition and dripping with the symbolism and stories of the Jewish people, I just can’t believe that we didn’t have a recipe for Homemade Challah bread. We have recipes for seemingly everything else. How could we not have a family recipe for something as iconic as challah?
After all, challah is kind of a big deal in Jewish culture. Not just for holidays, challah is enjoyed year round. For many Jews, even as frequently as weekly. Like most foods in Jewish culture, challah is symbolic. For very religious Jews, challah represents the daily portion of bread from heaven that God provided during their escape from slavery in Egypt.
Challah has also become a bit of a cult favorite among non-Jews. It’s a popular choice for French toast, bread pudding and grilled sandwiches.
What is Challah Bread?
Challah is an eggy loaf of bread that has a slight sweetness to it. Soft and fluffy on the inside, it’s closest in flavor and texture to brioche bread. The dough is typically braided and, sometimes, formed into a ring shape after braiding. It is just as good fresh as it is toasted, and can be enjoyed alone or incorporated into a variety of sweet and savory recipes.
What you need to make this Homemade Challah Bread
In coming up with my own recipe, I first consulted my oldest, most tattered cookbook where all of our family recipes are stored. While my Bubby may not have left us with a challah recipe, she did leave us with a pie dough recipe and a cake recipe. I put those recipes in my back pocket, did some more research online, combined what I learned with what I knew about bread baking, and sketched out a recipe for what I thought might work.
I kept the ingredients as simple as possible: flour, water, yeast, salt, sugar eggs and vegetable oil. That’s all!
Sometimes it’s nice to add golden or even dark raisins to the dough before braiding. You could also try adding cinnamon, chocolate or cream cheese. I’ve also seen recipes where savory ingredients are added to the challah, like garlic and pesto sauce.
How to make Challah
As I mentioned, the ingredients are simple. It’s the process that needs your attention! First, you’ll dissolve the yeast in warm water. The water should be almost hot, about 110-115F degrees. The water needs to be warm enough to activate the yeast, or your bread won’t rise. If you have a kitchen thermometer, now is the time to use it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a meat or candy thermometer either. Just use anything that takes a temperature, and get that water nice and warm.
The dough will all come together in one bowl, and then you’ll have to knead it. If you have a stand mixer with a dough hook attachment, you may want to use it. You’ll want to knead the dough for 8-10 minutes which, for many of us, is just too long to do by hand. I actually love kneading by hand. Perhaps it’s the masochist in me.
Then, let the dough rise. If you put the dough into a warm oven, it will rise much faster than if you left it on the countertop. I’ll explain this further in the recipe instructions below.
Once your dough rises, you’ll do the braiding. If you know how to braid hair, you can braid challah. If you are really good at braiding and/or especially artistic, you can get really creative with different ways to braid challah dough. Below, I’ll give you the most basic instructions for braiding challah.
Once your challah is braided, let it rise on the countertop for another hour and then bake it.
I could not have created or executed this recipe without the help of my mother, virtually via FaceTime from Florida, or my daughter, who taste tested it for authenticity. So, in the end, we had three generations collaborating on this Homemade Challah Bread recipe, which makes it a family recipe after all! Enjoy!
Homemade Challah Bread
- 4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 envelope active dry yeast
- 3/4 cup warm water 110-115F
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 4 eggs divided
- 1 Tbsp. kosher salt
- 1/4 cup vegetable oil
- Dissolve the yeast in water for 5-10 minutes.
- Whisk together the flour, sugar and salt in a large bowl. Make a well in the center and add 3 eggs and oil. Whisk the eggs, pulling a little bit of flour into the center to make a paste.
- Pour the yeast mixture into the well. Stir with a wooden spoon until combined. The dough will be shaggy.
- Preheat oven to 200 degrees.
- Dump the dough onto a floured surface and knead for 8-10 minutes. (Alternatively, put the dough into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook and knead on low speed, 8-10 minutes). The dough will be soft and smooth.
- Turn off the oven. Place dough in an oiled bowl and cover with a kitchen towel. Place into the warm oven for 1-2 hours, until doubled in size.
- Punch the dough down and divide into 3 equal pieces. Roll each piece into a rope 16-18 inches long. Line the ropes up next to each other on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Pinch the ends together on one side. Braid the dough. Dust with flour, cover with a kitchen towel and let rise for 1 hour.
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Beat the remaining egg with 1 Tbsp. of water. Brush the dough with the egg wash. Bake 15 minutes. Rotate the baking sheet and baking another 20 minutes. Allow challah to cool on the baking sheet before slicing.