Challah Bread

Challah Bread

Challah bread, with its golden crust and soft, slightly sweet interior, is more than just a treat for the taste buds. This braided bread carries with it a rich tapestry of history, culture, and tradition, especially within Jewish communities. Whether enjoyed on the Sabbath, Jewish holidays, or even as a daily delight, challah’s significance goes beyond its delectable taste.

Origins and Historical Significance

Challah’s history can be traced back to biblical times, although the bread as we know it today has evolved over centuries. The word “challah” itself originates from the Hebrew term for a portion of dough set aside as an offering to God, a practice outlined in the Torah. This tradition, known as “hafrashat challah,” involves taking a small piece of dough before baking and burning it, symbolizing a contribution to the priesthood during the times of the Temple in Jerusalem.

The Symbolism of Challah

Challah bread is traditionally braided, and this shape is imbued with symbolism. The braids, often consisting of three, four, or six strands, can represent various themes such as love, unity, and the intertwining of the six days of the week with the Sabbath. Some interpretations suggest that the three-strand braid symbolizes truth, peace, and justice, while others see the six-strand version as a representation of the days of creation.

The round challah, typically baked for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, symbolizes the cyclical nature of life and the continuity of creation. It is often adorned with raisins or sweet toppings to signify the hope for a sweet new year.

Making Challah: Ingredients and Process

The basic ingredients of challah are simple: flour, water, yeast, sugar, salt, and eggs. However, the process of making challah is where the magic happens. Here is a basic overview:

  1. Mixing and Kneading: The dough is mixed and kneaded until smooth and elastic. This step is crucial for developing the gluten, which gives challah its characteristic chewy texture.
  2. First Rise: The dough is allowed to rise in a warm place until it doubles in size. This can take about 1-2 hours.
  3. Shaping: After the first rise, the dough is divided and shaped into strands, which are then braided. This is a step where bakers can get creative, experimenting with different braiding techniques and shapes.
  4. Second Rise: The braided dough undergoes a second rise, ensuring a light and fluffy texture.
  5. Baking: Before baking, the challah is brushed with an egg wash, giving it its glossy, golden crust. Sometimes, it is sprinkled with poppy or sesame seeds. It is then baked until beautifully golden brown.

Variations and Modern Twists

While traditional challah is a mainstay, there are countless variations that reflect both regional influences and modern creativity. Some bakers incorporate whole grains, seeds, or herbs into the dough for a healthier twist. Others create sweet versions filled with chocolate, cinnamon, or fruit preserves, making challah a versatile bread suitable for various tastes and occasions.

In contemporary cuisine, challah has found its way into numerous dishes. Challah French toast, with its rich, custardy interior, has become a brunch favorite. Bread puddings and even savory stuffed challahs are popular, showcasing the bread’s adaptability and wide appeal.

Cultural and Religious Role

In Jewish households, challah is a central part of the Sabbath meal. The bread is usually covered with a special cloth and blessed with a prayer known as the “HaMotzi” before being shared. This ritual underscores the sanctity of the Sabbath and the importance of family and community.

During Jewish holidays, challah continues to play a vital role. For instance, during the Jewish New Year, round challahs symbolize the cycle of the year. On Shabbat, the two loaves of challah represent the double portion of manna that fell in the desert, ensuring the Israelites had enough to last through the Sabbath.

Classic Challah Bread Recipe


  • 1 cup warm water (110°F/45°C)
  • 2 ¼ teaspoons (1 packet) active dry yeast
  • ½ cup honey
  • ¼ cup vegetable oil (plus extra for greasing the bowl)
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 4 ½ – 5 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 large egg (for egg wash)
  • 1 tablespoon water (for egg wash)
  • Poppy seeds or sesame seeds (optional, for topping)


  1. Activate the Yeast:
    • In a large mixing bowl, combine the warm water and honey. Stir to dissolve the honey.
    • Sprinkle the yeast over the water and let it sit for about 5-10 minutes until it becomes foamy.
  2. Mixing the Dough:
    • Add the vegetable oil, 2 eggs, and salt to the yeast mixture. Mix until well combined.
    • Gradually add the flour, one cup at a time, mixing until the dough starts to come together.
  3. Kneading:
    • Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead for about 8-10 minutes until the dough is smooth and elastic. You may need to add a bit more flour if the dough is too sticky.
  4. First Rise:
    • Grease a large bowl with a small amount of vegetable oil. Place the dough in the bowl, turning it to coat all sides with oil.
    • Cover the bowl with a clean kitchen towel and let the dough rise in a warm, draft-free place for about 1-2 hours, or until it has doubled in size.
  5. Shaping the Challah:
    • Punch down the risen dough and turn it out onto a lightly floured surface. Divide the dough into three equal pieces.
    • Roll each piece into a long rope, about 12-16 inches long. Place the ropes side by side and pinch them together at one end.
    • Braid the ropes together by alternately crossing the outer ropes over the center one. Pinch the ends together and tuck them under the loaf to seal.
  6. Second Rise:
    • Place the braided loaf on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
    • Cover with the kitchen towel and let it rise for another 30-45 minutes, or until it has puffed up.
  7. Egg Wash and Baking:
    • Preheat your oven to 375°F (190°C).
    • In a small bowl, beat the remaining egg with 1 tablespoon of water to make an egg wash.
    • Brush the egg wash generously over the challah. If desired, sprinkle with poppy seeds or sesame seeds.
  8. Baking:
    • Bake the challah in the preheated oven for 25-30 minutes, or until it is golden brown and sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom.
    • If the top starts to brown too quickly, you can cover it loosely with aluminum foil.
  9. Cooling:
    • Remove the challah from the oven and let it cool on a wire rack before slicing.

Enjoy your homemade challah, whether plain or topped with seeds, as part of your meal or in various delicious recipes!

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