Burning the whole challah?
March 12, 2008 11:43 AM   Subscribe

Help me make terrific challah.

I've tried three or four different challah recipes to the letter, and they've all turned out exactly the same, even with different ovens: way too hard crust (one injured the roof of my mouth), too pale inside, and crumbs fall on the floor if I so much as breathe on it. I want challah to be the complete opposite, just like in the store, only better: very moist inside, yellow, and an almost non-existent crust. (Ok, if the yellow is only food coloring I can survive without that.)

This question is very helpful (it started me thinking about making challah again *drool*) and I'm going to buy this book mentioned in the thread which looks really good, but I'm wondering if anyone has any specific advice about challah. Thanks.

Oh--and I have a bread machine, but so far haven't ever used it for challah.
posted by Melismata to Food & Drink (22 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
(Ok, if the yellow is only food coloring I can survive without that.)

I can't offer you a good recipe, but I can tell you that the yellow is from egg. No food coloring.
posted by amro at 11:45 AM on March 12, 2008

I made a challah last week, which came out great, but it was the crusty kind (the way I like it), so I can't help you with that. But as far as the yellowness goes, the recipe I used called for crushing up a chewable vitamin C tablet or two and mixing it in with the yeast and sugar at the beginning. I think that's a better alternative to food coloring.
posted by seldomfun at 11:46 AM on March 12, 2008

Huh, some googling tells me that I am wrong, that food coloring is sometimes used. But evidently saffron can be used instead.
posted by amro at 11:50 AM on March 12, 2008

Free-range eggs will have more yellow yolks.

Possibly reasons for excessive crumbliness: you didn't knead enough, your flour is too weak, there is too much fat/oil/shortening in your dough. Crust: dial the oven down a notch.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:04 PM on March 12, 2008

Practice, poolish, and patience.
posted by rikschell at 12:08 PM on March 12, 2008

I have always had great results with the challah recipe from The Enchanted Broccoli Forest; beautiful color (no additives, just four eggs and honey) and texture, and makes lots. The cookbook itself is worth a read for the illustrated guide to making bread.
posted by nonane at 12:28 PM on March 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

I had excellent results using the challah recipe from Cook's Illustrated* (although the bottom of the crust was a little crunchy, the rest was perfect). It wasn't particularly yellow, but it was moist and made FANTASTIC french toast (also using their french toast recipe).

Not sure if that's one of the recipes you've tried, but I had great luck with it.

*not sure if that will show up for you, but I wanted to point to it for reference
posted by stefnet at 12:29 PM on March 12, 2008

I've been making challah for many many years now and the trick to keeping it moist is to use a shitload of butter and eggs, and to glaze the top before putting in the oven. Also, to keep it from burning on the bottom use parchment paper and cornmeal.

A good recipe to start with is the cooking.com one. Add more honey and sugar than they say though. I usually use a third of a cup of honey for 6 cups of flour.
posted by Large Marge at 12:32 PM on March 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Random datapoint: I use this recipe and double the amount of sugar. I knead it by hand and I leave it in the oven until it's golden, not *brown.* I bake it on cookie sheets, not in loaf pans. It usually comes out moist and without a thick crust.
posted by needs more cowbell at 12:41 PM on March 12, 2008

Great suggestions so far, thank you. I've heard that putting a pan of water/steaming at the bottom of the oven will help with the crust, have people tried that?
posted by Melismata at 12:47 PM on March 12, 2008

Can you talk more about the pan you're using, whether you use parchment etc, are you preheating the oven, that kind of thing?
posted by arimathea at 1:03 PM on March 12, 2008

Yes to preheating the oven. Not using parchment or corn meal (great idea); using a cookie sheet as needs more cowbell suggests; have never glazed as someone told me that would make the crust even worse. Don't think I over- or under- kneaded it, but rather just followed the recipes to the letter. Recipes used: an old King Arthur flour one, and the one in back of How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household. Have used only all-purpose flour; perhaps bread flour would help. I wonder if I'm just overbaking the whole thing; the recipes state "cook until brown" (not golden) and when I follow the recipes to the letter, they do turn quite brown, and that's could be causing it to harden and dry up.
posted by Melismata at 1:12 PM on March 12, 2008

In a large bowl, proof 1 packet of yeast with 1.25 cups of sugar, and 2 tsp of warm water.

To the yeast and sugar, add 2 whole eggs and one yolk. Mix to combine, then add 1/3 to 1/2 cup of sugar, depending on your preference for sweetness. Finally, add 1/3 cup of veg. oil and 1/2 tsp salt.

To the liquids, add 4 cups of bread flour, stir to combine, and set aside for 15 minutes to allow the flour to hydrate.

Turn out onto a well-floured surface and knead, adding flour as necessary until the dough is homogenous, and not too sticky.

Let rise until doubled, then degas and let rest for 10 minutes.

Shape into your desired forms -- I like a 4 braid, but that's mostly because I can never get 6 right.

Brush the top with an egg wash of one egg beaten with a tsp of water. Let proof until about 5/3 the original size. Brush with egg wash again, and bake at 350 until done. They'll be shiny and golden, but not too dark.

posted by piro at 1:29 PM on March 12, 2008

We used gold potatoes in our challah, which may have contributed some color. However, the main source of the color was the eggs. The amount of fat in the dough is really key in controlling the closed crumb and tender crust. Try experimenting with adding more oil or butter. The dough should be fairly sticky as you turn it out for shaping.

I would suggest getting a digital kitchen scale (I think Target has some cheap ones). A digital scale is great for baking and it can really help if you are trying to develop a recipe at home. The difference between extra large and large eggs can be pretty big and with a scale you will have some frame of reference that you don't have when a recipe just calls for 2 "eggs". Start with a recipe from a reliable source and take notes as you work with it. Modify one element at a time and keep track of how these changes affect the final product.

In regards to steam during baking -- don't bother. First of all you should be using an egg wash to get that shiny, deep brown crust. So the eggs should effective seal the crust against moisture in the oven. Secondly, although it may be counter-intuitive, steam in the oven will make for a thicker, more crispy crust, not a thinner, tender one. The steam acts to gelatinize the outside of the loaf which creates a thicker skin on the loaf, which will develop into hard, crusty crust. We didn't use the steam injectors at all when baking challah at the bakery.

On preview: It really sounds like the lack of egg wash is causing your crust troubles. The protein in the glaze will contribute a lot of color to the finished product. If the glaze makes the bread more brown, then it will be browner, sooner. If you don't use the egg but bake it to the same color, then you are effectively over baking it. It seems to me like you've been doing everything right and then wrecking it by following some bad advice.
posted by iloveit at 2:01 PM on March 12, 2008

If your outsides are hard and burnt and your insides are raw, your oven sounds like it is too hot. Do you have an oven thermometer?
If you don't want to buy one (I'm too cheap to) you can just experiment by baking a loaf at the normal temp and baking another of the same recipe at 25 or 50 degrees lower.

An insulated baking sheet, or a bunch of layers of tin foil, could stop your bottom from burning.
posted by rmless at 2:05 PM on March 12, 2008

Seconding/thirding the suggestion to use an egg glaze.
posted by needs more cowbell at 2:05 PM on March 12, 2008

If you want a soft and airy texture, choose a recipe with a lot of yeast, and make sure you knead it properly.

If you don't like a good crust, for god's sakes leave the pan of water out of the oven. That's how you get a good crust. I would probably not put on an egg wash, or only use egg whites. But then again, I love a good crust, so I have no experience with wonderbread challah.

I recommend the Challah recipe in this book, the cheeseboard pastry book. It worked brilliantly for me the first time. Light, flavorful and a lovely natural yellow.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 2:54 PM on March 12, 2008

Ditto rmless, sounds like your oven may be too hot.

In addition to defending you challah against a dark crust on the bottom with an insulated or a doubled up pan, you can keep the top lighter by placing a piece of parchment over he loaf while it's baking. It will slow down browning and crusting to a small degree.
posted by quarterframer at 3:19 PM on March 12, 2008

I made the challah in Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook a couple years ago and it was the most authentic challah taste and texture I'd had since moving away from New Jersey. In fact, I just looked it up last night to make it again, only this time I think I'm going to do what I learned from no-knead bread and bake it in a dutch oven so it gets even more moist and with no crunch on top (of course, it won't be a traditional braided shape, but I don't care).
posted by birdie birdington at 5:20 PM on March 12, 2008

If you want to try a 100% whole wheat challah that is just as soft and sweet as white, try using whole wheat flour from hard white wheat (King Arthur and Hodgson's Mills have it), use only a little bit of yeast and be very slow with it. A poolish is a bit of pre-dough you can make the night before: 1/2 teasp. yeast with 1/2 c water and 3/4 c flour. Put it in the fridge overnight, then in the morning add another 1/2 t. yeast, 2 c water, 2-1/2 c flour and put in a slightly warm spot for an hour or so. THEN you can make up the dough. You don't need to overdo the eggs, oil, & honey: I use one egg and 2 T each of oil & honey per loaf. First rise should be 3-1/2 to 4 hours, second rise 2 hours, loaf rise about an hour. Bake at 350 for 45 minutes with an egg wash, maybe some poppy seeds.

But the main thing to get it how you want it is to practice a lot. Experiment a little, but don't expect perfect results for a while. I've been baking bread weekly for almost four years and I'm still tweaking and improving. Timing can be the most difficult part: slow bread tastes better and has better texture than fast bread.
posted by rikschell at 6:23 PM on March 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Seconding the Cook's Illustrated version (with egg glaze). That's what I use, and it's delicious (though it does have a slight crust.)

It does sound like you're overbaking - aim for golden.
posted by canine epigram at 6:47 AM on March 13, 2008

I've had very good luck with the challah recipe from Bread Baker's Apprentice: it's been a while since I made it (18 months or so) but it's definitely over on the soft-crust end of the spectrum, rather than crispy.

If you don't have an oven thermometer (the kind that clips in there or stands in there), I highly recommend one: mine cost about $10, and is working quite reliably, as it sounds like some of your issue might be temperature related. Parchment paper is also my friend for this kind of thing.
posted by modernhypatia at 6:51 AM on March 13, 2008

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