Fluffiest Sourdough Challah Bread

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This particular recipe has a lot of significance for me. I developed it after a  visit with my Grandpa that was such a rare and beautiful time of connection and ended with a visit at a local Jewish bakery where the baker and his daughter invited my son and I to shape challah with them that would deeply impact me and the work that I would call “Living Bread Baker”.

Here is a post I wrote a few months after that visit when my Grandpa passed away:

I knew that weekend would be special. After a difficult hospital stay and more health issues last spring, my grandpa came back home. Hearing about how skinny he was and other details… I baked sourdough bread, we loaded up the kids, and drove down to spend a weekend with him—cooking and spending time together.

It was a very rare opportunity to have him alone after his second marriage without interference or distraction. I took on the challenge of cooking diabetic/heart/blood pressure friendly with homemade chicken stock and groceries I picked up.

While we were there, I saw the grandpa I remembered from when I was little. I was the first grandchild and had a special bond with him from the beginning. I loved seeing his joy and childlike play when the kids were around.

That weekend was a treasure for us and our kids. I wanted to show my grandpa love and honor, and I believe it was as important for me, as it was for him, and maybe more. It was also the weekend when a chance encounter at a Jewish bakery was a tipping point to explore baking more. I think it was a divine opportunity that the weekend opened up. Every visit from that point on, I brought him bread.

His last words to me were an encouragement to “do good, do a good job”. I will miss him cheering me on this side of Heaven (he loved seeing his grandkids succeed), but I am SO thankful that he is free and experiencing joy and peace in a profound way right now. I love you, Grandpa.

In this strange era of COVID, with Valentine’s Day just passed and the celebrations of Passover and Resurrection Sunday coming, this bittersweet time of celebrating love and promise through this beautiful bread feels fitting.

We can show love through breaking bread with each other. But the most powerful display of love is when Jesus who called himself “the Bread of Life” was broken for us on the cross.

I hope you enjoy this bread that has meant so much to me and our family.


This recipe is the master recipe for challah bread from my book,  Everyday Bread Baking. All the recipes in it use a sourdough starter for the primary starter method, learn more about my books here:

amazon cookbook link

Here’s a video I made during that spring of 2018 of the process:

Fluffiest Sourdough Challah Bread

This is a household favorite and classic. You will love how soft and delicious this sourdough version is! The texture is irresistible with a weekend dinner.
Course: Breakfast, Side Dish
Servings: 2 450g/1 lb. loaves or 1 large loaf

Equipment

  • Food Scale
  • large bowl
  • Spoon
  • plastic dough scraper
  • Rolling Pin
  • Parchment Paper
  • Water spray bottle
  • Pastry brush
  • Cooling Rack
  • Metal pan for steaming
  • Bread peel (or substitute flat baking sheet)

Ingredients

For the sourdough levain, make 8-12 hours before mixing dough:

  • 35 g Sourdough starter very active, fully fermented that was refreshed in past 12 hours
  • 80 g warm water about 75-80˚
  • 135 g bread flour

For final dough:

  • 80 g warm water
  • 8 g sea salt
  • 2 large eggs plus 1 for glazing
  • 55 g Avocado oil or oil of choice
  • 60 g sugar or sub. honey
  • 400 g bread flour
  • 200 g of the fully fermented starter made in step 1

Instructions

Recipe Prep, Make the Levain

  • Levain: Knead starter into water until beginning to dissolve. Add flour. Knead until smooth. It is very thick so using hands to knead it will help all the water to get absorbed. If it feels too dry, add a few drops of water. Cover and keep at room temperature for the sourdough levain to ferment and become active (this takes 8-12 hours).

Baking Day

  • Mix: In a large bowl, combine water, sea salt, 2 eggs, oil, and sugar. Whisk until well beaten and sugar and salt are dissolved. Mix in bread flour. Use a spoon, dough scraper, or your hands. Mix until all ingredients are combined and there is no dry flour left.
  • Knead: Transfer the dough to an unfloured clean work surface. Measure 200 grams of the sourdough levain and add it to the dough. Knead the levain into the dough mixture for 10 to 15 minutes or until the levain is fully incorporated. The dough should be smooth and release easily from the work surface.
  • Bulk fermentation: Clean the mixing bowl with warm water to create a warm environment for the dough, or use a different dough container. Put dough in the bowl, cover, and let ferment 3 to 5 hours until the dough is smooth and doubled in volume.
  • Prepare baking dish: Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
  • Divide: Divide dough into two 450g (or about 1 lb.) portions for the 2 loaves. Divide again. There will be 4 portions of dough.
  • Preshape: Lightly flour work surface, roll out a portion of dough into a flat long skinny rectangle. To make a long roll, roll up a long side into a spiral. Repeat with remaining 3 portions of dough.
  • Braiding: Take two ropes of the dough and cross them over each other into an “X” shape. Take the upper two sections of the ropes of dough and pull down toward the bottom so all four ends are pointed downward. Take four small pieces of paper and label each one with a number: 1, 2, 3, 4. Put the pieces of paper below the ropes of dough, from left to right. As you follow the braiding steps, move each number to align with the rope’s new position. To start: Bring1 over 2, 3 over 4, 4 over 1, 2 over 4, 1 over 3, 3 over 2, 4 over 3, and 1under 2. Tuck all the strands under and seal them against the loaf. The goal of the braiding is to have an alternating and even pattern that comes up higher in the center of the loaf. Hold the ends of the loaf and stretch it if needed to help make the shape more even.
  • Proof: Cover with plastic wrap, loosely to allow room to expand. Proof for 4-6 hours, until tripled in size (check readiness by lightly pressing dough with finger, if dough springs back wait longer, if indentation stays, it’s ready). A warm environment, protected from drafts is optimal.
  • Preheat oven: 20 minutes before baking, preheat oven to 350˚, put baking stone (if you do not have a baking stone, bake straight on the baking sheet) in the oven to preheat on middle rack, place rimmed pan with water on lower rack.
  • Egg wash: Meanwhile, whisk 1 egg with 1 t. water and brush onto loaves for the glaze. Sprinkle loaves with sesame or poppy seeds, if desired.
  • Baking: Carefully transfer loaves to heated baking stone with parchment underneath. Bake 25 minutes, then remove pan of water, close oven, and bake about 10 minutes longer, until browned.
  • Cool: Put challah on a cooling rack to cool for 20-40 minutes.

Video

Notes

Troubleshooting Tips
Q: Why did my braiding burst during baking?
A: Gaps or bursts in the braiding indicate underproofing. Next time, proof the bread longer to have a sufficient rise before baking, at which time the heat from the oven will create the final expansion—called “oven spring”.
Q: Why is my braiding not pronounced? My bread is all one shape with only a few lines showing where I braided.
A: If you braid the dough too loosely the loaf won’t have that defined braiding look with the traditional “humps” on the final baked bread. Pulling the ropes of the dough tight after each braiding action will create more tension and allow the portions of the braid to rise which will show a more defined braided pattern.
Q: Why is my challah burnt on the bottom?
A: Thin baking sheets can cause uneven baking and even burning on the bottom of bread. A baking stone creates more even heat and won’t burn the bottom of your bread. A baking stone is the ideal, but if you don’t have one, using a thicker, insulated baking pan or a silicone baking mat may help.
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