We Tested 4 Famous Challah Recipes and Found a Clear Winner
I’m what you’d call a challah snob. I offer to bring challah whenever I’m invited for Shabbat dinner — because I really only want to eat my own — and there’s a very short list of friends who are even allowed to bring a homemade challah into my home.
Last summer, I walked around Jerusalem’s Machane Yehuda market looking for snacks my children could eat in the hotel. I asked them if they wanted challah to nosh on, and my son Joey said, “Absolutely not. Why would we want to eat anyone’s challah but yours?” To be fair, there are some great challahs in the market (Magdaniat Pe’er for a classic challah and Russell’s Bakery for a whole-grain one), but you get my point.
I’ve worked on my own challah recipe for years, improving the texture and taste until I achieved a soft, extremely fluffy and stringy loaf, with just the right amount of sweetness. Indeed, the Kitchn staff knew I would be a tough judge when they asked me to test four challah recipes to determine the very best.
Notwithstanding, I went in with an open mind, and they are all from cookbook authors and bloggers I greatly admire. In the process I learned some new tips for mixing, shaping, and topping my challahs — and came away with a clear winner.
How I Chose the Challah Contenders
There are a lot of challah recipes online, and because I make my own challah recipe every week, I haven’t made anyone else’s in over 20 years. My methodology was to choose recipes from creators from different corners of the Jewish food community to reflect the Jewish baking past and present.
First, I chose two classic Jewish recipe creators. While I hate to call them “old-school“ (that would mean I belong in that group as well), these contenders became known for their recipes the old-fashioned way: through fabulous cookbooks and other food writing, before social media dominated the Jewish recipe world.
I chose Joan Nathan because she’s a James Beard award-winning cookbook author, well-known for her recipes and food writing for The New York Times. She’s been making Jewish food recipes famous for many decades, and is a household name among my contemporaries and beyond.
I had to include Marcy Goldman, too, because she’s a true expert in Jewish baking. Her cookbook A Treasury of Jewish Holiday Baking, which I turned to for many years for all my holiday desserts and breads, was the inspiration for my first cookbook The Kosher Baker. She also has a popular subscription website called Better Baking.
I wanted to select two other contenders who are revered today by the younger generation and are popular online. This field is quite congested, with so many impressive Jewish recipe creators, but because I could only pick two, I selected one popular among the general Jewish cooking population and another from the kosher sphere.
Chanie Apfelbaum is known for her cookbook Millennial Kosher and blog Busy in Brooklyn, and she certainly is busy. She’s gained a large following on Instagram, where she shares her creative spins on classic Jewish recipes, as well as typically non-kosher recipes made kosher. Chanie represents a new generation of kosher recipe developers who came of age online.
How I Tested the Challahs
I made all four recipes in one day — meaning I had the best-smelling house in the neighborhood, and also to ensure the temperature and humidity in my kitchen were consistent. I used King Arthur brand flours (all-purpose flour and bread, depending on the recipe) and Fleischman’s yeast packets for maximum freshness. I used large eggs for each recipe. If the recipe called for salt, I used fine salt, unless it specified kosher salt.
I did a three-braid challah for every loaf, even if the recipe dictated otherwise. I baked them on the same type of stainless steel sheet pan and used Silpat silicone mats unless directed to use parchment paper by the recipe.
As for toppings, I sprinkled sesame seeds on Marcy’s and Joan’s loaves. Molly’s recipe has a unique egg yolk and sugar glaze, and Chanie’s has a sweet crumble. I also made sure to taste all of the breads without the toppings to better compare the texture and flavor of the inside of the loaves.
The recipes made varying amounts of challahs, which definitely affected the ease of mixing; larger amounts of dough are by design harder to knead. Joan and Marcy’s recipes each made two large loaves. Chanie’s recipe yields a bonanza of dough from which I made four very large challahs, and Molly’s recipe made a single, very long challah.
Meet Our 4 Challah Contenders
1. The Classic, Cake-Like Challah: Molly Yeh’s Challah
Molly’s recipe follows a classic challah-making method, and the result is a traditional loaf. She uses all-purpose flour, which may be part of the reason that the loaves seemed more cake-like than bread-like. As the dough itself was dense, it was hard to mix and knead, but once it rose, it was very easy to shape.
Molly has a novel way to shape the strands for braiding — she shapes the dough into a rectangle, and then uses a knife to cut it horizontally into long strands. I’m often too lazy to make sure my strands are perfectly even, but now Molly has given me a simple way to achieve that. I also really liked Molly’s unique glaze of egg yolk and sugar with a sprinkle of coarse salt, and will try that next time on my own challahs.
I found the overall taste of Molly’s challah pretty plain, and I didn’t like the dense texture — I prefer the unique way my favorite challahs pull apart into long, soft strings. To me, that feature is what makes challah bread different from white, sourdough, and other breads.
Overall rating: 7/10
2. The Barely Sweet Challah: Marcy Goldman’s Commercial-Style Challah
Marcy’s goal with this recipe was to create a challah that looks like the ones you find in Jewish bakeries. She recommends using yellow food coloring to accomplish that, but I would have preferred more egg yolk or even a bit of turmeric or saffron, which I’ve used in challah myself.
Mixing the challah wasn’t difficult, but the dough was a bit thick once the flour was mixed in, and took some effort to knead with the mixer and hook; the dough kept creeping up and sticking to the hook so I had to scrape it down several times. The process was tedious but eventually the dough was smooth and ready to rise.
I had a hunch that the step to spray the loaves with oil didn’t make sense, but I followed it anyway and ended up with very dull-looking loaves. The texture of the baked challah was very nice and soft, but it had too little flavor. It tasted very similar to Joan Nathan’s recipe, and reminded me of challahs in France and some in Israel, which have very little flavor and barely any sweetness to them.
Overall rating: 7/10
3. The Picture-Perfect Challah: Joan Nathan’s Challah
Joan’s challahs look exactly how you want your challahs to look: large and shiny. They really were beautiful. Therefore, when they emerged from the oven, I had high hopes for the taste as well; Joan is such an expert.
Overall her challah was good, but really too simple in taste. I enjoy more flavor and a bit of sweetness. The texture was soft and had some stringiness, but in my opinion, not enough.
I had some challenges with the recipe, as the flour amount was way off, and I’m glad I had the challah-baking experience to know when to stop adding flour. The dough was very hard to mix, and you really need a stand mixer for it.
Overall rating: 7.5/10
4. The Clear Winner: Chanie Apfelbaum’s Challah
Chanie’s challah recipe is the clear winner: The look, texture, and taste were what I expect from challah. Although her sweet topping is not essential in my opinion, it was simple to make and very tasty, and both the loaves with and without it were pretty. When you pull apart a slice of her challah, the pieces break into long strings — the sign of the right amount of gluten and rising time.
The honey in the recipe gave the loaves more flavor. I wouldn’t describe it as a very sweet challah, but rather just the right amount of sweetness compared to the other contenders’ recipes. In short, the other challahs were too simple in their tastes.
I prefer challah that tastes more like egg bread — I want it to taste different from everyday bread loaves. Indeed, Chanie’s recipe, despite the fact that it had only one egg for 5 pounds of flour, tasted more egg-bread-like than the others. I liked it so much that on occasion, I might even make it in lieu of my own!
Overall rating: 9/10