A Recipe: Sourdough Challah with Poppy Seeds

Whole wheat sourdough challah, fragrant with olive oil and honey, is a nourishing bread – rich, flavorful and worth the extra effort it takes to lovingly prepare the dough, roll out the strands and intricately braid the loaves.  While typically prepared from refined white flour, vegetable oil or margarine and refined white sugar, challah is, indeed, a loaf for special occasions – but preparing this traditional bread from wholesome ingredients elevates challah beyond the mundane to something that truly nourishes the body and spirit while satisfying the tastebuds.

In this version of challah, we use soft white wheat flour.  Soft white wheat is a whole grain, differing from hard red wheat which is typically used for breads, in that it is softer, with a lower protein content and is better suited to preparing pastries.  When transforming your family’s favorite treats and sweets made from refined white flour, to more nutrient-dense whole grain alternatives, choosing whole soft white wheat flour enables you to maintain the baking qualities of white flour while nourishing your family with the myriad vitamins and minerals typically found in whole grains.  Of course, whole grain is rife with antinutrients including enzyme inhibitors which inhibit good digestion as well as food phytates which bind up minerals in the digestive tract inhibiting your body from fully absorbing all the micronutrients whole grain can offer so the proper preparation of flours and breads is essential not only for improving flavor, but also in protecting from mineral deficiencies.  Fortunately, sourdough fermentation as called for in this recipe for whole wheat challah dramatically improves the nutritive qualities of whole grains by neutralizing enzyme inhibitors and degrading phytic acid.

Using Freshly Ground Flour

If you’re serious about bread baking, you might also consider purchasing a grain grinder for your home (see sources). After whole grain is milled, packed and allowed to sit in bulk bins or on the shelves of your local grocery store, nutrients are lost – vitamin E and other vitamins slowly degrade the longer the flour sits.  When you grind grain fresh, not only is the flavor vastly improved, but many of the fragile vitamins and enzymes remain intact.  Bread, like this whole wheat challah, becomes a true luxury when prepared from freshly ground flour.

Where to Find a Sourdough Starter

This recipe requires a sourdough starter, instead of baking yeast, to leaven the bread.  I use this recipe for sourdough starter

whole wheat sourdough challah poppy seeds
whole wheat challah with poppy seeds

a recipe: sourdough challah with poppy seeds

whole-grain-challah (1)

By Jenny Published: November 29, 2011

  • Yield: 2 loaves
  • Prep: 30 minutes mins
  • Cook: 30 to 40 minutes (baking) mins
  • Ready In: 60 mins

Whole wheat sourdough challah recipe featuring soft whole wheat flour, honey and olive oil.

Ingredients

  • 1 quart proofed sourdough starter
  • 7 cups whole soft white wheat flour (divided, plus extra for kneading)
  • 1 cup filtered water
  • 5 eggs (divided)
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 1 tsp unrefined sea salt
  • 1/2 cup unrefined extra virgin olive oil (plus extra to grease the bowls)
  • poppy seeds (to dress the challah)

Instructions

  1. Stir one quart proofed and bubbly levain with four cups soft white wheat flour and one cup filtered water. Pour the levain and flour into the basin of a standmixer equipped with a dough hook and mix until the dough forms a solid lump, cleaning the sides of the bowl, about three minutes.
  2. Transfer the dough to an oiled mixing bowl, cover it with a kitchen towel and allow it to rest for twelve hours.
  3. After the dough has rested for twelve hours, whisk four eggs, one-quarter cup honey, one teaspoon unrefined sea salt with one-half cup unrefined extra virgin olive oil.
  4. Transfer the dough back to the mixer equipped with a dough hook, pour in egg mixture and remaining three cups soft white wheat flour. Mix together until the dough forms a solid lump, about four minutes, then transfer to a floured surface for kneading.
  5. Knead the dough, adding additional flour as necessary, until it becomes smooth and pliable, about six to eight minutes.
  6. Transfer the dough to an oiled bowl and allow it to rise until doubled in bulk, about one to two hours.
  7. After the dough has doubled in bulk, divide it into two equal portions. To make one loaf, divide one portion of the dough into three portions, then divide each of those three portions into two portions. You should have six equal portions of dough for one loaf of challah.
  8. With the palms of your hands, roll each of the loaf’s six portions of dough into a strand about twelve inches long and one and one-half inches wide. You should have six equal strands of dough for one loaf of challah.
  9. Braid the six strands of challah. (Register for Happy & Healthy Holidays to view the video tutorial on braiding a six-strand challah, available December 1st).
  10. Prepare the second half of dough in the same way as you prepared the first.
  11. Beat the remaining egg with two tablespoons water and brush it on the loaves.
  12. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
  13. Allow the loaves to rise again for about an hour, brush with egg wash a second time and dress with poppy seeds.
  14. Bake in an oven preheated to 375 degrees Fahrenheit until golden, about forty minutes.
  15. Cool loaves completely before serving.

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What people are saying

  1. Annie says

    I have got my hands (and elbows) into this recipe but now I’m confused about a couple of things.
    First, I’m wondering what, exactly, you mean by “soft white wheat flour”. “Soft” meaning pastry flour that has low gluten? Or are you talking about flour made from whole white wheat which is still considered a “hard” flour and has a good amount of gluten? Or are you talking about unbleached white bread flour (the refined stuff)?

    Secondly, I realized when I started putting this dough together that you didn’t mention what the hydration is for the levain. The difference between a thin one and a thick one would change the amount of flour to be added. My starters are pretty thick so i don’t have to add so much un-soaked flour to make a dough.

    Some more photos of the dough at different stages would help. I don’t have a stand mixer (some day maybe) so I’m doing it by hand. Not knowing how thick or thin the levain is I didn’t know just how this dough is supposed to look before letting it sit for 12 hours.

    I sure hope I hear back from you soon because I really want to make this for Easter. Today’s Challah is my first run and truly an experiment in the dark–sort of!
    Thanks,
    Annie

  2. Shari says

    I also have questions similar to what Annie asked.. I am surprised you were able to get enough gluten development using soft wheat. Your breads look great.
    How did you do it? I would also be interested in seeing a foto of the crumb.

  3. Annie Ferrer says

    Thank you so much for this recipe. I made it with whole wheat pastry flour (for the first rise) and unbleached white flour (added for the second rise). The texture came out amazing, so nice and soft, no sour flavor at all! I did find the EVOO flavor a bit overpowering so next time I will try a combination of butter and coconut oil. I’ll let you know.

    • Anna says

      So much fun to make! I really enjoyed the braiding process. The crust is great and crumb is nice and soft. Like Annie, however, I found the EVOO flavor to be a bit strong and would be interested to hear how the butter/coc oil worked out, as well as potentially more honey! Also, upon first putting ingredients together my dough was stiff and a beautiful ball, but after the first rise it was very wet and sticky. I kneaded it in the stand mixer along with the added ingredients and it came together some, but never fully. After the second rise it was extremely wet and I had to knead it with several cups of extra flour to stiffen it enough to shape. Do you think this could be due to over-oiling my bowls? I generously oiled them for the rises (it overflowed my bowl both times!) or is it something else. Hoping to make these again for Thanksgiving, so any advice would be much appreciated!

  4. Terah says

    Hello, I am fairly new to sourdough and uncertain how to know whether I have a quart of starter…I usually go by weight, or cups. Does this mean I should use 4 cups of starter? Thank you!!!

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