Welcome to my comprehensive guide to baking challah for home cooks, including lots of different braiding techniques, plenty of recipes, how to separate challah, and a a complete walkthrough of the process.
Challah, rich loaves of braided Shabbat bread, are a beloved and awaited treat for the culmination of the week, although this form is a relative newcomer in terms of Jewish history (more about that below). Enriched with eggs and oil, challah is soft and feathery when torn. I’ve been baking challah almost every week for a decade and I hope you’ll find something here to help you in this meaningful ritual, whether you’re a total beginner or a challah baking master .
- Overview of baking challah at home
- A note of encouragement for challah beginners
- Braiding techniques for shaping challah
- Challah recipes
- Equipment for challah baking
- Ingredients for challah baking
- When to start challah
- Mixing and kneading challah dough
- Rising challah dough
- Baking challah and how to tell that it’s done
- Uses for leftover challah
- A Brief History of Challah
- Hafrashat challah – taking/separating challah (for home bakers)
- Halakhic considerations
Overview of baking challah at home
Baking challah has four basic steps:
- Mixing and kneading the dough;
- Leaving the dough to rise, usually for an hour or two;
- Shaping the dough, usually by braiding, then leaving it to rise again for half an hour or so;
- Brushing on egg wash and baking the challah, usually for a bit over half an hour.
There are lots of variations between bakers in how they like to do each task, but the basic routine is the same. It’s fundamentally a simple routine, easy to internalize (after some practice), and continually rewarding.
A note of encouragement for challah beginners
If you’ve never baked a challah: get ready to amaze yourself. Despite the many fussy instructions that come along with baking yeasted bread, especially the kind to which you add eggs, like haughty brioche, challah is approachable and achievable. I have baked challah through many seasons of life and it’s always been kind and forgiving to me. Really, all you need is a bit of time, about two and a half hours start to finish, with most of it being resting time (while the dough rises). A stand mixer with a dough hook will make the kneading easy, but you can absolutely make superb challah by hand (I did it for years; plus, that’s what our grandmas did, right?). And you can bake challah with all-purpose flour, whatever you have in your pantry already. You can find the story of how I learned to make challah, along with my master challah recipe, in the post Perfect Challah.
Braiding techniques for shaping challah
I have a bee in my bonnet about over-complicated challah braiding instructions. I think this comes from numbering the strands and describing the process in reference to the numbers, like “cross strand 7 over strand 2.” This requires you to remember which strand was the original strand 2, which is super frustrating. It doesn’t have to be this way! Every braid, even the higher stranded ones, has a pattern to it. If you remember the pattern and watch your work, it makes intuitive sense.
The instructions in the posts linked below are visual and give the pattern, no strand numbers anywhere. I’ve also added the mnemonic I use to remember the pattern for each one. It might not make sense until you try it, but hopefully it’ll help you once you get going. For each type of braid, I’ve added a visual below; click on the link for the full post with a visual walk-through.
A final word: braiding challah is forgiving; if you make a mistake, unravel and start over.
How to Braid a 3-Strand Challah – right to the center, left to the center:
How to Braid a 4-Strand Challah – over-under-over (looks complicated but it’s not!):
How to Braid a 5-Strand Challah – right to second from left, left to center and twist left (this is probably the most complex braiding sequence):
How to Weave a 5-Strand Challah – outer of 3 in (this one is super easy):
How to Braid a 6-Strand Challah – left to the center, second from right over; right to center, second from left over (a bit tricky till you get the hang of it visually):
Holiday challah shapes
How to Braid a 6-Strand Round Challah (for Rosh haShanah):
- Classic, Perfect Challah
- Billowy-Soft Vegan Challah (Water Challah)
- Round Raisin Challah – traditional for Rosh haShanah
- Spelt Challah with Avocado Oil and Honey
- Chocolate-Chip Challah
- Whole Grain Fruit & Nut Challah
- Savory Pumpkin Challah
- Currant Challah with Salted Honey Crust
Equipment for challah baking
The only two pieces of equipment you absolutely need are a large mixing bowl and a baking sheet (well, and an oven).
Large bowl with a lid (or cling wrap) – You’ll want to start the dough in the bowl and then let it rise in there, covered. You can use your stand mixer bowl for mixing and rising, if you’ve got one. Some people prefer to let the dough rise in a second, clean bowl. (I usually don’t, unless I need the mixer bowl for something else.) You can buy a silicone lid for your mixer bowl. Another option is to use a dough bucket; yeast doughs love that thing.
Light-colored baking sheet (preferably) – You can use any sheet pan you’ve got, rimmed or not. I use an insulated, rimless baking sheet (an Airbake cookie sheet) which I like because the bottom crust never gets overbaked on those. If you find that your bottom crust is browning too much, try putting one sheet pan inside another to create your own insulation (that’s what I did when I only had dark pans, and it works surprisingly well!).
Silicone basting brush – For brushing on the egg wash that makes a challah a challah.
Nice to have
Stand mixer with a dough hook – This does the kneading for you and makes the job very easy. A food processor is generally too small for a batch of challah dough.
Bench scraper – This is a very handy (and inexpensive) tool for cutting up the dough. You can use a chef’s knife instead. The bench scraper will also clean up any gummy flour mess on your work surface in two seconds flat.
Kitchen scale – It is so much easier to measure the flour for bread-baking using a kitchen scale. I put the mixer bowl right on the scale and tare it, then add the flour.
Challah Board and Knife – Not strictly necessary, but a wonderful way to present your homebaked, hand-braided challah and a classic hiddur mitzvah.
Challah Cover – You can of course use any nice, clean cloth, but again, a nice item to have.
Yeast measuring spoon – If you do a lot of baking with yeast and buy it in larger packages, it’s helpful to have a spoon designed to measure out the equivalent of a packet (2 1/4 teaspoons), which is still the most common measurement used in recipes.
Instant-read kitchen thermometer – This will help you take the internal temperature of your challah to make sure it’s baked inside. (You can also tell by practice, sight, or thumping on the bottom for a hollow sound.) This is the one I have; as a bonus, they’re easily color-coded for a kosher kitchen.
Silicone baking mat – Challahs bake well on these, so they’re nice to have if you bake regularly.
2-cup glass liquid measuring cup – I use this to measure out the water and oil, as well as for activating the yeast if I’m using honey, which is easier to measure and dissolve in the cup.
Ingredients for challah baking
You can use all-purpose flour, bread flour, or a combination of both. Bread flour has a higher protein content, so it makes a stretchier dough and a more feathery challah. Because it’s easier to find and less expensive, I usually use all-purpose (though the brand I use, King Arthur, has higher protein than do other brands’ all-purpose blends, like Gold Medal).
I use and recommend active dry yeast, which needs to be activated in a bit of water before adding it to the dough. The brand I usually get is Bob’s Red Mill, but I’ve used pretty much every brand on the market at some point, and I can’t detect any differences, including random generic blocks imported by my local kosher market. Some people prefer instant yeast, which technically doesn’t require activation, although I find I have better results when I treat it like active dry. Common brands of instant yeast are Red Star and Saf (a French brand that has different formulations for regular and enriched doughs).
You can use granulated sugar or honey to feed your yeast–the sugar in the recipe plays the part of yeast food, which in turn will eat it, creating little stretchy gluten pockets that cause your bread to rise. Not all breads use added sugar to feed their yeast, but challah needs it because it’s enriched with eggs and oil. Sugar has a neutral taste in the finished product, while honey imparts a slight flavor. In my experience, challah rises better with sugar than honey. I use either one.
My standard recipe uses three whole eggs in the dough. For an eggier and yellower challah crumb, you can use one whole egg and four yolks. You can also do this if you need the egg whites for another purpose.
You can use any kind of oil, keeping in mind that strongly flavored oils, like olive, will impart flavor to the finished challah (which can be a good thing, depending on the flavor profile you’re going for). I like using avocado oil, which has a neutral taste.
Salt is the secret ingredient in bread baking. Without it, bread tastes completely flat and pointless. I use Diamond kosher salt, which is about half as salty as table salt, so if you’re using regular table salt or a different brand of kosher salt, you might want to reduce the salt a bit and see how you like it. You’ll want to add the salt to the dough along with the other enrichments.
Raisins and Other Add-Ins
After lots of experimentation, I’ve found that the best time to add raisins, nuts, chocolate chips, etc. is right at the end of the kneading, before the first rise. Otherwise they tend not to get mixed into the dough evenly. It also works best to knead them in by hand. You can also roll out each section of the challah braid and fill it, then roll it up into a rope, like you would babka or cinnamon buns; this happens during the shaping stage.
To get the signature shiny, golden challah crust, you need egg wash. Use a whole egg and beat it with one teaspoon of water, then brush it on. You can add a bit of almond milk or honey to the egg wash if you like. Egg white alone won’t give you the golden color and egg yolk alone has a tendency to burn.
Poppy Seeds and Other Toppings
A traditional topping for challah is poppy seed, which you can sprinkle on right after brushing on the egg wash. Sesame seed is another possibility, as is anything else you can dream up.
When to start challah
Overnight Rise – Start on Thursday evening
If you want to make your challah dough the day before, you can start on Thursday evening and rise the dough overnight in the fridge. After kneading the dough, place it in a covered bowl and refrigerate. The next day, about an hour before you want to shape it, remove the dough from the fridge and let it come to room temperature. Turn it out, braid, then let it rise for another 30 minutes.
Same-Day Rise – Start on Friday morning
I know it might seem a bit intimidating to wait until Friday to start challah, but once you get into the challah-baking rhythm, it’s plenty of time. Budget a minimum of two and half hours from when you want to be pulling out the challahs from the oven, and you’ll be fine. I usually start my challahs mid to late morning. I also bake them fairly late because my family complains if they’re not warm!
Mixing and kneading challah dough
The process of mixing bread is distinct; at first, you’ll have a goopy mess, then a dry shaggy mess, and finally the dough will come together into a nice, tacky but not sticky mass. Throughout you will doubt whether this will work, and sometimes, it just won’t, so you’ll need to add water or flour, just a spoonful at a time, until the dough cooperates. Which it always will, in the end, so don’t worry.
Whether by machine or by hand, you’ll want to start off your dough in a bowl. Once it comes together, you can move to kneading on a surface if you’re kneading by hand, or right in the bowl if you have a wide mixing bowl.
Rising challah dough
First rise (bulk fermentation)
After the dough comes together and you’ve kneaded it so it’s smooth and elastic, it’s time to leave it for its first rise. The first rise (or bulk fermentation, in baker jargon) is the longer one. Challah dough needn’t double in volume precisely, but it should be visibly larger by about 70-80%.
Before placing your dough in its rising bowl, knead it a few times by hand to form it into a ball shape. Mist the bowl with oil, place the dough ball inside, and mist the top of the dough with some more oil.
You’ll want to cover your rising dough tightly, to avoid the outer layer drying out and forming a crust. You can use a bowl lid or cling wrap. I find that a towel does not work as well.
I recommend leaving the dough to rise inside your (turned-off) oven with the light on. I once left my probe thermometer inside the oven with the light on and I was surprised to see that it reached a temperature of over 100F / 37C. With the light turned off, the oven goes down to about room temperature. Because it raises the interior temperature of the oven, this creates a great environment for rising yeast doughs. You can also simply leave the bowl on the counter, tightly wrapped. Alternately, if you’re doing an overnight rise (see above), put the bowl in the refrigerator, which will make it rise slowly.
Second rise (proof)
The second rise (or proof) for challah is after shaping it into its final form. You can let it rise for about half an hour, 20 minutes at minimum. You can preheat the oven during the second rise, so it’ll be good and hot by the time you’re ready to bake the challahs. I cover the braided challahs with a clean kitchen towel and leave them on the counter. Brush the egg wash on after this step.
Baking challah and how to tell that it’s done
Regular challahs will take about 35 minutes to bake in a medium-hot oven (350F / 180C). I’ve found that 375F / 190C is too high a heat and dries out the challahs, though it’s tempting when you have something else in the oven that requires that temperature. If you want to speed up the baking just a bit but not dry out the challahs, you can push it up to 365F / 185C with good results.
I bake two loaves of challah to a baking sheet and put it on a shelf set approximately in the middle of the oven. If you’re baking something else, put the challahs on the top shelf rather than the bottom.
When fully baked, the challahs will reach an internal temperature of at least 190F / 90C and will sound hollow when thumped on the bottom. They should be a medium golden color, not dark.
Uses for leftover challah
If you have challah leftovers, there are lots of really stellar ways to reuse them. You can pulse them in the food processor to make bread crumbs, or use them in recipes, like French toast, stuffing, or bread pudding.
A Brief History of Challah
The word challah as it appears in the Torah has three different contexts, which get conflated in our current traditions surrounding the bread. Forms of baked dough (generally unleavened) called “challah” are used as part of consecration of the priestly office, and later, in certain sacrifices. It is mentioned in reference to the lechem panim, the twelve loaves of “shewbread” that were displayed from week to week in the Beit haMikdash (Jerusalem Temple). Challah was also part of the system of terumot (tithes), although it was not specifically tied to the Temple grounds and was given to priests throughout the Land of Israel. We associate the separation of challah with the tithing context, but also incorporate elements of the lechem panim as well as the manna that fell in the desert, into our challah baking and eating practices.
In biblical times, tithed challah was given to a kohen (priest), who, in a tahor (ritually pure) state, could eat it. The term challah seems to refer to a loaf. Early on, challah was probably thin (more like a flatbread), and possibly pierced (from the root ch-l-l; this is Gil Marks’s conjecture, see his Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, 96).
It may be that by the medieval period in northern Europe, Shabbat bread was already a thicker loaf. In explaining challah in his Talmud commentary, Rashi uses the Old French word טירטי”ל, probably tortel, from the common ancestor our words torte and/or tortilla, likely meaning “round cake” (see Beitzah 9a s.v. חלת)–however, this gloss is missing in the manuscripts.
The braided egg loaf that we tend to think of as “challah” today probably originated in early modern (15th or 16th century) southern Germany. It’s conjectured that its braided shape was influenced by local, possibly pre-Christian traditions of shaping loaves of ceremonial bread. The current form is thus at least five hundred years old, while the tradition itself stretches back thousands of years.
Hafrashat challah – taking/separating challah (for home bakers)
Note: Please consult your local qualified authority to confirm what you should do in practice (lema’aseh).
Because the Torah obligation to give priests challah only applies when the majority of Jews are living in Israel, once that was no longer the case, the Sages of the Talmud instituted that a small piece was to be separated from dough made from one of the Five Grains (wheat, barley, spelt, oats, or rye) and kneaded with water. The process is called hafrashat challah. Since there are no ritually pure priests these days, challah is separated and then disposed of by burning it to a crisp, usually wrapped up in foil in the oven.
Today, we call both the separated portion of dough and the end product of the dough “challah.” Although the separation process is a mitzvah mandatory for all qualifying dough (more on those qualifications in a minute), it is one of the mitzvot considered to be special to women. It’s a common practice for women to come together to bake challah, because smaller portions of dough can be combined to produce enough dough to recite the blessing. It’s become a ritual gathering and opportunity for blessing that is really wonderful, if you have the opportunity to be involved in one.
How much dough is required to separate?
Now we’re getting to the complicated stuff, which is, of course, in the details. There is a minimum threshold of flour (mixed with at least some water) that must be met before hafrashat challah can be performed–approximately 10 cups of flour, or a bit less than 2 1/2 lbs / a bit more than 1kg. There is separate, higher minimum threshold that must be met in order to be able to separate and recite the blessing for hafrashat challah, and the consensus varies a great deal here. According to the Shulchan Aruch (YD 324:1, pursuant to the discussion Talmud’s discussion in Shabbat15a), the minimum volume of dough for separating challah with the blessing is 43 1/5 times the volume of an egg (keBeitzah). Because of the ambiguity involved in calculating the volume of an egg, there are different authoritative opinions about how much it constitutes in modern units of measuring volume. As a result, people will vary in their customs of how much dough qualifies for saying the blessing. However, a common practice is to go by the higher end of the possible amounts and to say the blessing only over 5 lbs / 2kg, 300g of flour, approximately 18 cups (a huge amount!).
For situations in which no water is used in the kneading of dough of the Five Grains, for large volumes of batters (such as cake batter) or dough that will be cooked rather than baked (such as pasta), Scroll-K has a clear chart explaining when to separate challah and whether the blessing is said.
The blessing for hafrashat challah
If you have used enough flour to qualify for the blessing, you will tear off an olive-sized piece of dough (kezayit) and say:
. בא“ה אמ“ה אשר קדשנו במצוותיו וציונו להפריש חלה (יש אומרים: להפריש תרומה)
Baruch Atah haShem Elokeinu Melech haOlam asher kidshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu lehafrish challah (some say: lehafrish terumah).
After reciting the blessing, you declare that the separated protion has been designated as challah by saying הרי זו חלה or הרי זו תרומה (harei zu challah or harei zu terumah).
Some people have the custom to wash (netilat yadayim) without a blessing before separating and blessing. Some people have the custom to stand. It is considered an auspicious time for offering personal prayers, if you wish.
How to burn the separated challah
The separated challah portion must be burnt to a crisp. This is usually done by wrapping it tightly in foil (which also serves to separate it from ordinary food items) and placing it in a hot oven or under the broiler. According to most views, nothing else should be in the oven while burning the challah.
Note: Please consult your local qualified authority to confirm what you should do in practice (lema’aseh).
The requirement is, generally to constitute a meal, to have bread (although, notably, there are other contexts for making an eating occasion into a meal). On Shabbat specifically, the requirement is to have two whole loaves of bread kneaded from flour made of the Five Species of grain (according to Jewish law, identified as wheat, spelt, rye, oats, and barley) for, at minimum, the Friday night kiddush and the Saturday kiddush. (If, after the fact (bediavad), you don’t have two whole loaves, you can still make kiddush, though.) Shabbat bread can be, and historically has been, many different types of bread; the global Jewish community is diverse and so are its breads. The common practice today among Ashkenazi Jews is to have two braided loaves at each meal, and there are many different customs on how to configure the braids. Many people are also careful to have two uncut loaves or rolls for the seudah shlishit, the third Shabbat meal.
Keeping challah parve
Because bread is commonly eaten with both meat foods and dairy foods, the Shulhan Arukh (YD 97:1) requires that all bread be parve, unless it is shaped in a special way to indicate that it’s dairy (or, theoretically, meat, something that used to be done by the use of rendered fat, but is rarely done today; or is made in a small enough quantity that it will be eaten during one meal anyway). Authorities differ on this point, but generally if you’re baking an uncovered challah in a meat or dairy oven that has not been used in the last 24 hours (is not ben yomo) without meat or dairy inside at the same time, your challah remains parve. If you mix them using designated meat or dairy bowls or other equipment that is not ben yomo, this is something to check with a qualified local authority.
How many challahs do you need for Shabbat?
How many loaves of challah (Hebrew plural: challot) you will need in baking for Shabbat or a holiday will vary somewhat depending on your practice, preferences, guests/invitations, and location. You should preferably have two whole loaves or rolls for each festive meal on Shabbat (so, three meals) and chag (so, two meals per day), but you can accomplish this in a variety of ways. If you slice two whole challahs at every Shabbat meal, including seudah slishit, you would need six; if you slice one and put one aside, you would need four. For holidays (and Shabbatot if you’re not serving challah at the third meal), figure four loaves/matzahs per day if you’re slicing both at one meal and three if you slice one. My master recipe will make two large loaves, three medium-sized loaves, or four small, “kiddush-sized” rolls, as many Jewish bakeries call them. You can also make one loaf and six challah rolls, baking the rolls for about half the time.
Since it’s permissible to make kiddush on a frozen loaf or roll, some people keep one in the freezer for this purpose. By the way, you don’t need braided egg bread for kiddush/haMotzi. You can make it on any kind of kosher bread kneaded from one of the Five Grains and water. So you could use whole pitas, whole sandwich rolls, unsliced French bread, and so on.