By: Esther Pransky, Lubicom Marketing Staff
There’s nothing like the taste and smell of fresh challah. And now that Pesach is over, it’s only natural to post an article about challah. But, what to write?
We turned to our Instagram community to see what readers wanted to know about challah making and baking. Our Instagram following is a formidable force, numbering over 43,600 followers from all over the world. And they didn’t disappoint! We got 23 different questions about everything challah.
To answer those questions, we caught up with Naomi Elberg, founder of TGIS (Thank Goodness It’s Shabbos) Challah, with an impressive Instagram following herself. Naomi is no stranger to Kosher.com (check out her challah recipe here), and she graciously agreed to share some challah tips and tricks with us.
Here’s what Naomi has to say, with our readers’ questions in bold:
Whenever I do a demo, I start off by introducing myself and explaining how I got started. And then we get into the basics of all the ingredients. It’s not just a recipe. Like I always say it’s a guideline. So, it’s also about the quality of ingredients that you use that will give you the results that you’re looking for.
I love the idea of baking challah, but it’s very time-consuming. Do you have any time-saving tips?
That’s a preconceived notion, and that’s why I think challah is so daunting to so many people. They’re under the impression that it’s a full day of work. It’s not! You don’t necessarily have to do a five-pound batch of challah. You can divide up the process so you can make your dough in advance, and you can let it slow-rise in the fridge, which is what I really recommend people doing. And so basically you do half of the process one evening, and then the next day you do the rest of it. (More details below!) That’s not a full day. I think throughout the years, it was always made to be a daunting process, but it really shouldn’t be.
What’s the difference between fresh and dry yeast?
Let’s say, for example, you made a sourdough starter. You can use the live sourdough starter, or you can dry it for future use. That’s the difference between fresh yeast and dry yeast. Fresh yeast is pretty much like what your bubby used. It’s about 70% moisture. Dry yeast is dormant. When you use it, you’re adding water and sugar, and you’re bringing it back to life. The warm water wakes it up, the sugar feeds it, and your yeast begins to grow.
I don’t usually work with fresh yeast. It’s not as temperamental as I always thought it was, but it has a shorter shelf life. It’s more high maintenance. I stick with dry yeast because that’s what most recipes use and it’s most accessible. Also, you can keep it in your freezer indefinitely, and you can keep it in your fridge indefinitely before you open it.
Does fresh yeast taste better than using dry yeast?
It really shouldn’t. And you don’t eat yeast on its own!
I’m having a hard time finding yeast. What can I use as a substitute? I’ve read that baking powder or baking soda can work – any tips or other ideas?
Baking soda or baking powder could be used as a yeast substitute in cake, pizza dough, cupcakes, pancakes, muffins, or batter breads. If you’re substituting baking powder for yeast, add 1 to 1 ¼ teaspoons of baking powder for every cup of flour that you’re using. I did some research and found that using baking powder in yeast breads is touch and go. You should be gentle with the dough and shouldn’t knead it too much since it’s much more sensitive than your typical yeast dough and won’t withstand all that handling.
What other flours do you recommend besides all-purpose flour?
So, I don’t make my challah with all-purpose flour. I use bread flour. Flours are categorized from low proteins to high protein. Low protein flours are things like cake flour or pastry flour, and then they go up to high gluten flour, which is primarily used for bread, pizza, etc. So, the higher the protein content in the meal, the more gluten it produces. Whole wheat flours are the only exception to the rule. They have a higher protein content but produce very little gluten compared to white flour.
Can I substitute whole wheat flour for white flour when baking challah?
Yes. What I’m recommending to people now is if they want to make challah, and all they have is whole wheat flour or all-purpose flour, they should try to find “bread improver” or “vital wheat gluten.” Basically, that compensates for the gluten or the protein that’s lacking in the flour. Vital wheat gluten is made from wheat flour and processed to remove everything but the gluten. Then it’s dried and ground back into a powder/ flour. Read the bag before using; some brands say 1 tablespoon for every cup of flour, and some say 2–3 tablespoons per cup.
Can I use flour interchangeably in a recipe? Let’s say I wanted to use spelt flour; do I just replace with the amount of high-gluten flour in a recipe?
You can always use spelt in a recipe, but you’ll have to adjust either the amount of spelt flour or the water that you use because spelt flour absorbs water differently than white flour and whole wheat flour.
What salt do you recommend using for challah dough? Kosher salt, sea salt, table salt?
I use granulated pink Himalayan sea salt in mine. A few years ago, I got a baker’s catalog, and it had something called bread salt. I was very intrigued by it. I went into the store, and I asked one of the employees to tell me a bit more about it. She said it has a higher mineral content, and it yields a stronger, faster rise, but it’s really pink Himalayan sea salt, and I should save my money! So, I started using pink Himalayan sea salt, and I noticed right away that it does create a stronger, quicker rise and nice fluffy challah. So anytime I make a yeast dough, whether it’s pizza dough, cinnamon bun dough, or challah dough, I use pink Himalayan sea salt.
You can substitute it one to one, but if you’re using kosher salt for your recipe, I recommend reducing the amount of pink salt. Why? Because kosher salt has bigger granules. So, if your recipe, for example, calls for four tablespoons of kosher salt and you use four tablespoons of sea salt, it’s going to be much saltier because of the smaller granules. So usually I just reduce it to let’s say three tablespoons.
Can I halve my challah dough recipe?
Of course. I do it all the time. Try to find a recipe that is easy for you to half, like a recipe that either doesn’t use eggs or that has an even number of eggs.
What’s the best way to refrigerate challah dough overnight without the flavor tasting too yeasty?
You take a bowl or a dough bucket. I recommended a dough bucket since it doesn’t take up as much room in the fridge as a bowl. You spray the top of the dough with a nonstick cooking spray or a little bit of oil, and you cover the bowl with either plastic wrap loosely or one of those disposable shower caps. (That’s also why I like dough buckets – because the shower cap covers the top of it nicely.) Then take an unscented garbage bag, put the dough bucket in it, make sure all the air is out of the garbage bag, and tie a really tight knot. When you put the dough in the refrigerator, nothing will permeate it. Your dough won’t dry out and won’t pick up any smells. And for anybody that’s worried about garbage bags not being food-grade, it’s not touching your challah dough at all.
Can I overrise dough? What’s the limit on how long it can sit out?
Yes, yes, yes! What happens when you put yeast into your dough? The yeast eats away at the sugar and the flour that’s in your dough. That’s how it rises. And it grows, and it grows, and it grows. What happens when there’s no more of that sugar left for the yeast to feed off? That’s overrising. That’s when there’s nothing left for it to eat, it can’t thrive, and it just falls in. That can happen before you shape your dough. That can happen after you shape your dough. So that’s why I always say to leave your dough in the fridge, and it’ll have a colder, slow rise because the yeast still eats away at the sugar, but it’s at a slower rate than when you’re keeping it at room temperature.
Dough can stay in the fridge for up to 24 hours. I would not go past that. And at room temperature, there’s no specific time for how long it’ll take. An indication that your sugar is all used up is when your dough begins to smell extremely yeasty and it starts to fall.
My challah dough often doesn’t rise when I know my yeast has proofed properly. Why is that and how to prevent it?
Maybe the environmental conditions aren’t adequate. It could be too cold. It could be not covered enough. You could be overhandling your dough. You could not have kneaded it enough. There are so many different factors.
Is there any way to save challah dough that didn’t rise?
You can make focaccia or a flatbread or something similar.
No matter how much I practice, my challah braids always come out sloppy and uneven looking. What are some fool-proof ways of making them look professional?
Number one, a kitchen scale would really help you divide your dough into even strands. Next, let your dough rest anytime you handle it. When you handle it, you’re affecting the gluten development. So, the more you let your dough rest, the smoother your dough is going to be.
Wearing gloves is crucial. It creates a barrier between your natural body heat and the dough. Some people are just naturally hot-blooded, and their dough is always going to feel sticky to them. Or you can spray your hands with nonstick spray. There are all different tips and tricks that can make a huge difference.
What is your favorite egg wash method for a shiny crust?
So I actually learned this method from Danielle Renov. For every egg I use in my egg wash, I add two egg yolks. That’s if I’m doing a plain challah. But if I’m doing a crumb challah or something like that, then I’ll do four eggs and one tablespoon of sugar or honey. You can also add vanillin sugar, or you can use a little bit of vanilla bean paste. If I’m making savory challah, I add zaatar to the egg wash.
I love the sesame seed designs I see online. Are there any other tips for making easy challah topping designs?
That’s an easy one. You can coat each strand in different seeds. What you do is take a wet paper towel (but not too overly wet), and you roll your strands on it. Then roll each strand in different seeds – one in flax seeds, one in poppy seeds, and one in sesame seeds. You braid it that way, and you have three different seeds going on.
How long does a big challah have to bake in an aluminum pan?
You have to know your oven. Not all ovens are calibrated; it’s really just about knowing your own.
Sometimes when I bake challah, it looks perfectly golden on the outside, but it’s still raw on the inside. Any tips?
If you use aluminum pans, then many times, the top will be done before the bottom is. What you can do is take a metal sheet pan and put it underneath, and it should help make it better that way.
Why does challah deflate in the oven?
It shouldn’t deflate in the oven unless it was over-proofed.
How can I avoid part of the surface from splitting open while baking?
I call them stretch marks. To prevent these, you have to let your dough rise long enough outside of the oven before you put it in. I cover my dough with greased plastic wrap, so it keeps in the moisture, it prevents it from sticking, and it won’t dry out. And I keep it somewhere warm but not too warm, ’cause you don’t want it to overrise. There’s no specific time for rising, but what you want to see is that when you touch the dough gently, it sort of bounces back.
While baking, my challah braids start to pull from each other. How can I prevent that?
I egg my challah a few times. First, I do it right after I braid it, then 15 minutes later, and then another 15 minutes later, and then I put it into the oven. That way, as it rises, you can egg all those spots that were covered.
When I freeze my challah dough, it ends up changing in taste and texture. Why is that?
The flavor shouldn’t change. Here’s how you freeze challah dough. Challah needs two rises: the first rise happens after you make your dough and the second rise happens after you shape it, before you put into the oven. So, if you’re freezing your challah dough unshaped, then it’ll defrost, which will be the first rise. You’ll braid it, and then it’ll rise again, and then you bake it. Otherwise, you make a challah dough, you let it rise, you braid it, and then you freeze it. And then when it defrosts, that’ll be the second rise.
What’s the best ways to freeze challah? Raw or baked?
It doesn’t make a difference. It just matters how much time you have. I’ve done both.
We asked Naomi if she could share three new challah flavors with you, and she shared. . . four!
Onion Bialy Challah:
- minced dehydrated onion flakes (rehydrate them with a little water)
- poppy seeds
- coarse sea salt
- olive oil
Mix onion, poppy, coarse salt and oil. Brush on challah before baking.
“Cheesy” Garlic Bread Spice:
- Earth Balance margarine
- 1/4 cup nutritional yeast
- 1/2 tsp kosher salt
- 1 tbsp granulated garlic
- 1 tsp each (dry): oregano, basil, parsley
After applying egg wash to your challah (optional), brush partially melted Earth Balance margarine over your challah and sprinkle with garlic bread seasoning and paprika (optional). Bake. Brush once more with margarine once out of the oven. (I like to put the challah back in for a couple of minutes right after to ensure it melts in completely.) Use this sprinkle on corn, roasted veggies, chicken/meat, salad, popcorn, or for any dish you want to add a cheesy flavor boost.
Olive Oil and Zaatar (filling):
- good quality olive oil (preferably with a spout or in a squeeze bottle)
- coarse sea salt
- minced garlic flakes (optional)
Flatten challah strands, sprinkle zaatar in middle of strands, drizzle with olive oil and sea salt. Roll up strands and braid.
Mix egg with zaatar and brush over challah before baking. Sprinkle with more zaatar and garlic flakes.
Sweet and Salty Smoked Vanilla Crumb:
Classic sweet vanilla crumb topping. Sprinkle with smoked Maldon sea salt for a unique flavor experience.
- 1 cup flour
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 1 Tbsp vanilla sugar
- 6-8 Tbsp cold cubed margarine (unsalted) or 6 tbsp oil
Mix ingredients to form coarse crumbs and sprinkle over challah before baking.
Thank you for the bonus, Naomi, and thanks for all the awesome tips and tricks. We can’t wait to incorporate Naomi’s advice in our kitchens, and we hope you will, too.