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zoyerteyg's blog

zoyerteyg's picture

Sourdough challah is a familiar subject on this site, and there have been lots of recipes discussed and shared, with Maggie Glezer's probably in the lead. My only reason for revisiting the theme is that my version of challah, a sourdough adaptation of Jeffrey Hamelman's straight-dough recipe in Bread, is a bit away from the mainstream. To be blunt, nearly everyone who tastes my challah—thankfully, not my family—doesn't know what to make of it at best.

Here in Australia, most commercial and home-baked challahs seem to use a lot of what we call plain flour, a type designed for baking cakes and biscuits with gluten normally sitting in the 10% range. They're also often very sweet and heavily yeasted. The result is a puffy, cakey loaf that goes stale after two or three days and then makes sensational French toast. My impression is that challahs worldwide generally follow a similar pattern.

I was raised on this style of challah, and never liked it much except as French toast. The texture was too flabby and, despite my Polish-Jewish ancestry, I found the sweetness cloying. So when I started baking bread a few years ago, finding a challah recipe that worked for me was a priority.

Challah has become the bread I bake most often, a couple of loaves usually every two or three weeks. When I started out, I was really intimidated by the enriched dough, which at first always came out too sticky, and above all by the braiding (which remains a challenge, as you can see). Although I found the Hamelman recipe fairly early on, its main appeal was the detailed guidance on method. Even then, I could see it wasn't very sweet, with 8% sugar compared to a minimum 12% (and sometimes honey as well) just about everywhere else. I used to add some sugar because the proportion in the recipe seemed unnaturally low, even to my sweetness-averse palate. It was only after I began baking it regularly that I realised the Hamelman recipe was the answer to my discontent with mainstream challahs.

Mr Hamelman is entitled to his royalties, so I'm not going to pass on his detailed formula. The key aspects for me include how workable the dough is for kneading and braiding, and the low level of sugar, that I quickly learned to embrace. But above all, he specifies bread flour rather than lower-gluten alternatives, to the point of including some high-gluten flour, which isn't really available in Australia. The recipe makes for the kind of challah I was looking for: bread rather than a modified cake.

The only problem with it is that it's still a straight dough, and I'm into sourdough. For a long time, I tried adapting it by sticking to the ingredients and much of the technique, but taking over the sourdough components from Maggie Glezer's recipe, specifically 25% pre-fermented flour and proofing for five hours. The trouble with this approach is that the challah ends up noticeably sour. I like sourness in cucumbers, but challah is no pickle.

For a while, my remedy was to add two or three grams of instant yeast and sharply reduce the proofing period. Then I found I could go to a 20% pre-ferment and make some other adjustments and produce a challah without any obvious sourness. Recently, even the instant yeast has gone and my challah is now back to being a pure sourdough, slightly sweet but not sour.

For yesterday's bake, I made a few more changes more or less on a whim. Whether because of these or other factors, I'm very happy with the challah that came out of the oven. Yes, the air holes were too irregular and the braids hadn't fused perfectly, but the taste and the texture are where I want to be. Here's the crumb:

The ingredient formula is almost identical to the one in Bread (except that the percentage of eggs is slightly higher), as is a lot of the technique. The main features of the sourdough method I've developed through trial and error are:

  • A stiff levain at 60% hydration built on 20% of sourdough culture also hydrated at 60%.
  • Bulk fermentation at room temperature or slightly above for 100 minutes, including a light fold half-way through.
  • Fridge-retardation in bulk for about 18 hours.
  • The shaped loaves are proofed at room temperature for between 90 minutes and two hours (I'm a slow braider, so the first loaf finished tends to get the full two hours). I don't look for a rise of more than 50-75%. In my experience, oven spring is better with a shorter proof.

Well, most likely this isn't the kind of challah that many people will like. As I've discovered, the stereotype is too deeply entrenched in the challah-eating consciousness. Why bother with a sourdough that takes two fairly busy days to prepare? It's not as voluminous, not as sweet, not as differentiated from ordinary bread. You even have to wait a week or more for it to stale enough to make a satisfactory French toast.

But if you happen to share my discontent with mainstream challah, I hope my approach gives you something, so to speak, to chew on...


zoyerteyg's picture

Spelt, honey, and walnuts seem to like each other's company, as demonstrated very happily by this bake. It's true that the scoring leaves a lot to be desired and the loaves could have come out of the oven sooner. Regardless, the crumb was moist and the taste more delicate than the ingredients might suggest, just right for sandwiches in fact.

I've done a few variations on breads with a high proportion of whole spelt up to 100% over the last few months, and enjoyed all of them. There's an elastic quality to spelt flour that makes even sticky, wet doughs pleasant to work with, and whole spelt seems to rise more contentedly than whole wheat.

The recipe isn't especially original. It's largely adapted from Jeffrey Hamelman's Honey Spelt Bread that he included in the second edition of Bread, but this uses yeast and doesn't have walnuts. There's also some influence from the Dinkel-Walnussbrot recipe posted on The Fresh Loaf by hanseata ( a few years ago which seems to have inspired lots of bakers since.

Anyway, my formula today used 75% whole spelt (bread flour made up the rest), with a 25% sourdough pre-ferment made up of spelt and wheat flours in the same 75:25 ratio. Hydration was at 73%, and the other ingredients apart from salt were 4% honey, 10% chopped walnuts, and 0.2% fennel seed. I retarded the shaped loaves for 18 hours in the fridge, and left them out at room temperature for 2½ hours before a 40-minute bake.

My sourdough starter was perky from the beginning, and came through with a gratifying oven spring:

The darkened crumb contributed by the walnuts is one of the features of this bread I like most. I'm definitely going to bake it again.

zoyerteyg's picture

Having benefited from the collective wisdom of other Fresh Loafers for a while, I thought it was time to make a contribution. This bread is a sourdough adaptation of a straight-dough whole-wheat multigrain loaf with honey and dried malt that my much-loved late father-in-law used to make with a bread machine.

The family always loved it, and when I took up bread baking asked me to replicate it. They claim my version tastes the same, which of course can't be true because the technique has changed. Anyway, I've been tinkering with the recipe for a few years, influenced by the Hamelman whole-wheat multigrain bread and more recently by various bloggers on this site, especially David Snyder. Today's loaf had easily the best oven spring so far and tastes good too. The crackly crust was especially satisfying.



I thought it might be worth sharing the recipe because it has a couple of unusual features for a whole-wheat multigrain both of which are retained from my father-in-law's original formula, namely the high proportion (72%) of whole-wheat flour and the inclusion of the dried malt. Here goes:


Overall Formula (makes two large loaves) 

   643g            whole-wheat flour                                                                                                              72.1%

     20g            culture whole-wheat flour

   257g            bread flour                                                                                                                          27.9%

     64g            cracked wheat or rye                                                                                                            7.0%

     64g            steel-cut oats (or other grain)                                                                                               7.0%

     55g            linseed (or other seed)                                                                                                          6.0%

     28g            dried malt                                                                                                                             3.0%

     28g            honey                                                                                                                                    3.0%

     18g            salt                                                                                                                                        2.0%

   723g            water                                                                                                                                   80%

     13g            culture water



Levain build

   113g            whole-wheat flour (+20g culture flour)                                                                              72.3%

     51g            bread flour                                                                                                                         27.7%

   107g            water (+13g culture water)                                                                                                 65.2%

     33g            stiff whole-wheat culture                                                                                                   20.1%


Prepare the levain around 12 hours before the final mix, and ideally leave it to ferment at 21°C.



   183g            grains and seeds                                                                                                            100%

   183g            boiling water                                                                                                                   100%

       4g            salt                                                                                                                                      2.2%


Prepare the soaker at the same time as the levain, and leave it to stand in a covered bowl at room temperature.


Final Dough

   530g            whole-wheat flour

   206g            bread flour

   433g            water

     28g            dried malt

     28g            honey

     14g            salt

   304g            levain

   370g            soaker           




  1. Mix without kneading all the final dough flour and water in a bowl until the water has been incorporated.
  2. Cover the bowl and leave the flour and water to autolyse for up to 60 mins. The target dough temperature is 24.5°C.
  3. Add the soaker and honey, sprinkle on the salt and dried malt, add the levain, and mix roughly until all the final dough ingredients are loosely incorporated.
  4. Hand-knead the dough (I don't own a mixer) for 12-15 minutes until it acquires some body and the gluten has developed perceptibly. It will be sloppy and almost unmanageable at first, but starts to settle down after a few minutes.
  5. Bulk-ferment the dough for 3 hours 20 minutes, folding three times at intervals of 50 mins.
  6. Divide the dough into two equal pieces, then lightly pre-shape them round and leave to rest for about 10 minutes.
  7. Shape the dough pieces into boules or batards, optionally coat them with sesame seeds or cracked grain, then place them seam-side up in bannetons covered by plastic or inverted bowls.
  8. Proof for 2-2½ hours, ideally at 24.5°C. Alternatively, refrigerate the bannetons for 14-18 hours. If retarding in the fridge, leave the bannetons out at room temperature beforehand for up to 1 hour and afterwards for 3-5 hours, depending on the state of the dough.
  9. Pre-heat the oven well in advance of the bake at 240°C. However, if using a peel and stone, pre-heat the oven at 255°C to allow for the loss of heat when loading the loaves.
  10. Score the loaves and transfer them to the oven.
  11. Straight after loading the loaves, steam the oven and, if using a peel and stone, reduce the oven temperature to 240°C.
  12. After 20 minutes, lower the heat to 225°C and remove your steaming device.
  13. Bake the loaves for about another 30 (batards)-35 (boules) minutes, until fully baked and crusty.
  14. Take the loaves out of the oven and leave them to cool thoroughly (six hours or longer) before tasting.


This recipe includes a few innovations compared to my earlier versions of the bread, mainly the high 80% hydration level, the long bake, and above all the long proofing time at room temperature after fridge retardation. The extended final proofing was forced on me because we had to do some shopping in the morning, but the dough had hardly moved in the fridge and I was curious to see what happened. In the end, I left the loaves out for 4 hours 15 minutes and they don't seem to have suffered. I was worried that the sourdough acid aftertaste would be too prominent, but the flavour turned out balanced and wheaty.

It's certainly a denser bread than most, but there's enough expansion to keep the denseness at a pleasant level. And to my taste it's not remotely like the caricature of a whole-wheat brick. I hope you're interested to give it a try.

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