The best challah is light and airy, but do we ever think about the yeast that gives the challah its rise?
Yeast is a living organism that feeds off the sugars in dough — both the actual sugar added to the recipe and the sugar produced by the starch in the flour. Challah dough can rise even without added sweeteners. Yeast ferments the sugars, converting them into carbon dioxide bubbles that are trapped within the crust as the dough bakes, creating air pockets that are so desirable in all types of bread. The yeast cells take in oxygen from the air in the dough and reproduce by dividing themselves many times. Each yeast cell multiplies until it becomes a clump of cells. “Punching down” your dough breaks up these cell clusters and allows more air to reach the individual yeast cells, in turn causing greater rise. If you allow your yeast dough to rise a second time, make it much shorter than the first because the cells are growing faster. Just be sure not to let the dough over-rise. It will develop a sour smell and will lose strength and may even collapse.
Yeast is available in three forms: fresh cake yeast, active dry yeast, and quick-rise or instant yeast.
Cake or compressed yeast, found in 2-oz. cubes or 1-lb. blocks, is the most active type and will produce great amounts of carbon dioxide resulting in well-risen challah and bread. However, its shelf life is short and should be used well within the date stamped on the package. Always purchase it from groceries that have a quick turnover. This yeast is alive and will even expand when mixed with cool water, approximately 70°–80° F. Compressed yeast or cake yeast may be frozen for up to 6 months. Wrap well in foil and seal in zip-lock freezer bags. Once defrosted, the yeast will not be crumbly but rather creamy. It should still be quite active.
Instant yeast, the newest type on the market, is a stronger strain of dry yeast developed for commercial bakers in Europe and now available to the home baker under the name Quick-rise or Rapid-rise. This yeast is added to dry ingredients without being dissolved. Liquids used should be warmer, 120°– 130°F. Quick-rise yeast should not be proofed as it needs to feed immediately on the starch in the flour in order to expand. It is handy to keep a package on hand in your freezer for use anytime you have an urge to whip up a batch of challah or rugelach. It comes in 1-lb. bags that are vacuum-packed for freshness. Store it in the freezer once the package has been opened.
Active dry and quick-rise yeasts may be used interchangeably; however, dough will rise twice as fast using the instant type so don’t substitute this in recipes for rustic breads like sourdough that require a long resting period for flavor to develop. The speedy rise of instant yeast means your challah dough will rise in 30–40 minutes, making quick work of challah baking.
Three ¼-oz. packets of any dry yeast (1 strip) are equal to a 2-oz. cake of fresh yeast and can usually be used interchangeably in most recipes. You will need to adjust only the water temperature.
One tablespoon of instant yeast is equal to 1 ounce of fresh yeast or one and a half packets of dry yeast.
Obviously, varying the amount of yeast in a recipe will result in different dough textures. But don’t keep adding yeast, thinking that you’ll get lighter dough; fat and liquids in the recipe play a part as well in the unique chemical reactions caused by the heat in the oven.
Now that you understand the science behind how yeast works, you’re ready to get started on your baking.
- 5 lbs. high-gluten flour, bakery flour or bread flour
- 3 Tbs. instant yeast
- ¾ cup sugar
- 5 cups warm water
- 3 extra-large eggs or 4 large eggs
- ¾ cup canola oil
- 3 Tbs. kosher salt
- 2 egg yolks plus 1 Tbs. water for egg wash
- sesame or poppy seeds
Sift the flour into your mixer bowl. Add the instant yeast and sugar. Stir to combine. Add eggs and oil. Add the water and add the salt last. Mix at medium speed for 10–12 minutes.
Remove dough from the mixer bowl and allow to proof (rise) in a large bowl covered with plastic wrap for 45 minutes. Take “challah.” Divide the dough into 5 equal parts.
Divide each part into 6 equal strands. Roll out each strand to about 12” long. Place 3 strands vertically on your countertop. Place the other 3 strands horizontally, weaving them under and over the first 3; pushing them together in the center. You will be left with long strands stretching outward. Gather three neighboring strands and braid them together until the end. Repeat with remaining 9 strands, braiding each three together. Tuck each braid under the center woven part. Place the challah in an 8” or 9” pan sprayed with baking spray or lined with parchment paper. Repeat with remaining 4 parts of dough.
Allow to rise 15 minutes longer. Beat eggs and gently brush egg wash over the challos. Sprinkle with poppy or sesame seeds.
We like baking challah in a cold oven. It allows the challah more rising time as the oven warms so there’s no need to preheat. Place challos in the oven and bake 45–50 minutes. Remove and cool on racks.