Sourdough Honey Challah

Unusual challah, started using a wheat sourdough starter.  (updated June, 2018 *)

A couple of years ago I had tried making sour dough challah; the attempt wasn't particularly successful and I set the project aside.  I decided to re-try making it after we recently took a rye bread class at King Arthur Flour Baking Center in Vermont.  Good quality rye bread requires the use of sour dough starters, this class was a good review and lucky for us, we all went home with some great ripe starter. Thank you to my fellow Bread & Babka bakers for sharing the experience with me! 

Sour dough bread relies on a slow rise and will take more time than regular bread. You can control the time you have to work on the bread by placing the dough in the refrigerator to slow down rising and manipulate when  you work on the bread. This bread was made over the course of a day, using a starter "sponge" that had ripened for eight hours overnight.

  • The length of the process will depend on whether or not you have ripe sour dough starter culture. Instruction for starting sour dough are posted in February, 2013, Starting a Sour Dough Culture .  A live culture can be successfully kept in your refrigerator as long as you "refresh" (feed it)  approximately once a week. The sponge for this bread used ripe starter and then fermented at room temperature for eight hours. It would have been fine to leave the dough for a an hour or two less or another few hours longer, the amount of sour taste varies with the length of the fermentation.  Alternatively, I could have placed the starter in the refrigerator and allow it to slowly ferment/rise over 12-24 hours. 
  • Sour dough starters become specific to the wild yeast and bacteria living in your kitchen, and impart flavors that are affected by the environment in which they grow. Therefore unless you live in San Francisco, don't expect your starter to impart the exact same taste as a bread baked there. 
  • To make the sponge: measure ripe starter culture and mix with additional flour, water and in this case, a small amount of commercial yeast (see note).  The sponge mixture ferments for several hours and then the final bread dough is made much like ordinary dough. 
  • A note about wild and commercial yeast: I used SAF Gold yeast in addition to the wild yeast present in the sour dough. SAF Gold is especially formulated for sweet dough. The presence of sugar and salt control yeast activity; however,  my first couple of tries at making this bread resulted in a heavy dough. I believe it is because the wild yeast is more sensitive to sugar than commercial yeast; thus, I tried several combinations of when to add commercial yeast and how much to use. I came up with a satisfactory solution of adding a small amount of commercial yeast in the sponge starter and then again when creating the full dough. Rise times will be longer than you may be used to, you must have patience when working with wild yeast. 
  • The dough is mixed, shaped and allowed to rise again. The second rising may be a bit slower than bread dough made with a full measure of commercial yeast. 
  • After the second rising the dough is shaped, washed with a glaze if you choose and allowed to rise again. The third rise is slow, some might think painfully slow. The slow rising times allow the bread to develop a special complex taste and texture - you can't duplicate either with a fast rising bread, even a delicious one. 
  • Baking is started at a higher temperature (410- 420 degrees F) and then lowered (350-370 degrees F).  Try to allow the bread to cool before you start eating it! 
Sour dough is an ancient method of baking bread and electric stand mixers date back only to the early 1900's; however, having said this, I wouldn't try this bread without a good mixer that can handle bread dough.

Update June, 2018: Over the last several months, I have started to make this bread without using my Kitchenaid; for various reasons I've taken to hand-kneading/stretching most bread. In order to work around the need to stretch and organize the higher gluten percentage I'm kneading and then increasing proofing time. The initial starter proofing time is at least 8 hours in a warm environment (the proofing cycle in an oven is TOO WARM!!). Making the complete dough, the next proof is 2.5- 3 hours in a warm environment. Check the dough for stretchability (e.g. a window pane test). For one on-line source for how to "do" the windowpane test , click on the link.

Electric stand mixer, flat paddle blade (not the dough hook), large capacity bowl
Scale, measuring cups, spoons
Silcone spatula and flexible scraper
Work surface
Baking pans (I used 2 pie pans, sprayed with oil and dusted with cornmeal for the breads pictured)

Sponge starter :
6 oz ripe sour dough starter culture (I usually use a white wheat starter, but whole wheat or rye starters will work)
1/4 tsp instant yeast (I use SAF Gold, although any instant or active dry will work well. If using active dry yeast, make sure to dissolve it in the water first)
10 oz bread flour
6 oz room temperature water (better results if you let the water stand overnight so that all chlorine evaporates)

Final dough: 
All of the starter
2oz warm water combined with 1/4 tsp instant yeast 
4 oz honey
4 oz olive oil 
2 tsp kosher salt
3 large eggs (slightly beaten)
17- 18 oz all purpose flour
UPDATE 6/18:  knead  1/3 c sesame seeds into the dough 
2-3 Tbsp (approximate) barley flakes or rolled oats for topping or
           eggwash (white) and sesame seeds 
Additional flour for dusting the work surface

1. Make the sponge:  In the bowl of your stand mixer, add the sour dough culture, the water, yeast and bread flour. Mix on the low speed until the culture is broken up into the water and flour. Cover loosely with a smooth dish towel or plastic wrap. Place in a draft free spot (a cool oven works well) and let rest for 6-8 hours. Alternately, you can cover with plastic wrap and allow to rise in the refrigerator overnight.
2. Stir down the sponge starter. Add remaining ingredients except the flour and mix at low speed until everything is blended and then at medium low (speed 4 on a Kitchen-Aid). Occasionally scrape down the sides of the bowl if need be.
Stir down the prepared starter.
Add remaining ingredients except for the flour.
Add the flour and begin mixing, scraping down the sides as needed.
3. Add the flour, starting with 17 oz, adding the remaining 1 oz if you see that the dough is too wet. Increase the mixer speed (Kitchen-Aid speed 6) and beat for 6-10 minutes. The dough will become very stretchy and shiny. The best comparison I can make is that it should remind you of "silly putty," the dough will be slightly sticky, but will stretch in thin wide "ribbons."

After 2-3 minutes of mixing.
After 5-6 minutes of mixing.
After 8-10 minutes of mixing. 
4. Cover loosely with plastic wrap, place in a draft free place and allow to rise for about 2 hours. It will not double, but will be visibly puffier and lighter. 

5. Using a flexible scraper, push the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and turn a few times so that the surface of the dough is lightly covered by flour. This will make the dough easier to work with.

Push dough out of the mixing bowl and onto a lightly floured work surface. 

6. Lightly roll out, fold and form dough into a rectangle. Divide the dough in half, each half will make one loaf.

making a round shape #1
7. Shape the dough and place in greased pans or on baking sheets that have been sprinkled with corn meal. The dough will need to rise again, this rising period will also be slow - you may find it takes as long as 4 hours.  I generally have other things to do and do not keep a close eye on the dough at this point. I find that this type of dough is more temperamental about room temperature, so I generally place it in a cold oven, or an oven that has been heated to about 100 degrees (then turned off) and leave it to rise quietly by itself, checking after about 2 hours.  The second addition of the commercial yeast helps counteract the addition of the honey and salt. After trying (and failing) to create sugar-rich dough that relies entirely on wild yeast, I have found adding small amounts of commercial yeast works well and yields a baked product that still retains the complex sour dough texture and taste.

8. I've made several bread shapes, they all work well. I'm making this bread for Rosh Hashannah, the Jewish New Year, when it is traditional to make round or "crown" shaped breads.
When shaping balls or round shapes a better technique than just rolling a ball of dough in  your hand is to flatten a disk of dough and moving around the circumference, fold edges toward the center, placing all folded seams on the top of the dough, creating a smooth round shape on the bottom. Invert the dough and  place it seam side down on the baking pan. The smooth side, which is now on top, will rise to a beautiful dome.  I brushed a combination of 1/2 soy milk, 1/2 honey on the dough surface and then sprinkled each with barley flakes or rolled oats. Consider other toppings that might include seeds, zatar, onion flakes or cinnamon sugar. You can certainly use an egg wash if that is your preference. 

The dough will be finished rising when it has risen above the pan level and looks smooth and full. 



9. A simple round shape can be baked in a giant muffin tin:
or placed in a pie pan, slashing a design in the top, washed with egg wash or a combination of soy milk and honey

or baked in a round paper pan      

8. About 20 minutes before you start shaping the dough, and set the shelf in the middle of the oven. Baking is started at a higher temperature (410- 420 degrees F) and then after 10 minutes, lower the oven to 350-370 degrees F.  Continue baking for approximately 20 minutes, until the bread is golden brown. The internal temperature of the bread should be between 190 and 200 degrees.

10. Cooled bread can be covered and stored at room temperature for 2 days. Double wrap if you plan to freeze.

Have you read this far?  If yes, and if you try the recipe, or any sour dough recipe,  please leave a comment! I'm more and more interested in working with sour dough cultures and would love to talk to others who are using this baking technique.


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