by Les Saidel - June, 2011

Perhaps nothing intimidates beginner bakers more than braiding. The convoluted instructions of "folding braid 5 over 3 and under 2 ....." seem to bounce off the brain without penetrating.

The truth is that braiding is an advanced baking technique and one that will require some effort and dedication, but it certainly is not rocket science. Remember this little fact: As far as I know, nobody has yet invented a bread braiding machine. This means that all challahs in bakeries around the world are braided by hand, usually using low cost labour. If they can master it, surely you can too.

The secret is to study braiding hands-on only, not in theory. Sitting and reading a book on Shabat and trying to memorize the technique in your head is a waste of time. You need to actually hold the braids in your hands and make the twists, to let it sink in. In the case of braiding it is definitely the hands teaching the brain and not the other way round.

Most braiding techniques are a series of repetitions. Once you master the first twist or two, after that it is just repetition, again and again, the same thing. The trick is to master the beginning procedure, once you have that, the rest becomes automatic.

To learn a braiding techinique for the first time there are two ways - practical demonstration and written tutorial. We routinely conduct baking workshops in Saidels Bakery in a number of topics, one of which is Challah Making. You may enrol for one of these workshops and learn the technique by practical demonstration. The other alternative is to learn from these written pages - it's a little more difficult, but definitely doable.

Before we get started, a short introduction and a few tips to make your braiding experience more pleasant.

A braid is a cylindrical (usually tapered at the ends) strand of dough. You can braid challahs with as little as one braid and from there move up to 2, 3, 4 .... etc. Actually the sky is the limit and it is possible to make breads of 30 braids or more. However for practical purposes we will confine our article to up to 6 braids, which usually covers most types of challahs.

One of the most important parts of braiding is correctly preparing the braids before you begin. If you take a little time and extra effort to create your braids correctly and symmetrically, you will be rewarded with an easy braiding experience and a breathtaking end result. This first part of correct braid construction involves scaling. If you are using 2 or more braids try to portion the dough into equal portions for each of the braids. If one is substantially thicker or longer than the other, your work will be that much harder and the result will not be symmetrical.

Once you have more or less equal sized clumps of dough, roll them on your work surface until they are mostly cylindrical and slightly tapered at the ends. As you roll, try get the braids smooth, without any fissures or seams, or this will adversely affect the appearance. It is very difficult to completely eliminate any seam in the braid, so when done, position the braids with their seams facing downward, smooth side up, so that they cannot be seen. Next, lightly flour each braid (don't overdo it). There is nothing worse than trying to braid when the braids stick to each other.

Finally arrange the braids together (as shown in the following diagrams) to begin the braiding.

You are now ready to go.

One Braid

This techniques is usually used for large round challahs, or for challah rolls.

I do not have a picture of the braiding technique for a 1 braid round challah, but it is so simple, that a picture is unnecessary. Simply lay the braid out before you and starting at one end, begin coiling the braid in a circular spiral until you have reach the other end. You will now have one large spiral shape. Finally take the outer end and tuck it underneath the round challah to anchor it. There you go, it's as simple as that.

Now for some more complex techniques with 1 braid. These are usually used for making rolls. There are three methods described below -

One Braid Method 1:

1. Lay out the braid horizontally before you (A)

2. Pick up one end and twist it over the other in the shape of the number 6 (B)

3. Tuck the longer end (in your right hand) under and up through the hole of the 6 shape (C)

4. Press both ends together until they stick and lay the roll on the tray with these ends underneath and out of sight (D).

One Braid Method 2:

1. Lay the braid out horizontally before you (as in Method 1 above) and form the shape of a number 6 (A)

2. Tuck the longer end under and up through the hole of the 6 shape (B).

3. Again tuck this long end under and up through the hole (C)

4. Finally tuck the long end under and up through the hole and leave it protruding from the center like a small bulb. Hide the other end under the roll (D).

One Braid Method 3:

1. Lay out the braid and form into the shape of a number 6 (this time with the loop resting on top and not tucked below as in methods 1 and 2) (A)

2. Twist the bottom portion to create a figure 8 pattern (B)

3. Tuck the long end down and up through the bottom hole of the figure 8 (C). You now have both ends protruding slightly from both loops. (D)

Two Braids

Two Braids Method 1:

This creates a round rosette shaped challah/roll.

1. Lay the two braids out as shown in A

2. Continue twisting them as shown (B) until they are completely twisted, end to end (C).

3. Coil the twisted braid in a spiral rosette and tuck the remaining end below the dough. (D)

Two Braids Method 2:

This creates a teardrop shaped challah.

1. Criss cross the braids as shown in (A)

2. Bring south to north and north to south, with south passing to the left of north as they cross (B).

3. Bring east to west and west to east, with east passing above west as they cross (C).

4. Repeat this porocess until all the dough is used. Press the remaining ends together. There should be a distinct taper creating a teardrop shape. (D)

Three Braids

A three braid challah is the simplest classic challah braid and may be used for challahs or rolls.

1. Lay out the threee strands as shown in (A).

2. Cross the outer left strand over the middle strand, placing it adjacent to the right strand (B)

3. Cross the outer right strand over the middle strand and place it adjacent to the left strand (C)

4. Repeat this process until al the dough is used (D). Join the edges on both ends and if need be slightly tuck them under the main mass to create a smooth finish.

Four Braids

The four braid challah is one of the most attractive shaped challahs and is typified by its height. Starting with the four braid we will number each braid so as not to lose track. This braid may seem complicated, but once you have caught on, it is extremely simple.

1. Lay out the braids as in (A).

2. With your left hand raise braid 3 and with your right hand bring braid 1 under it, all the way to the right, over braid 4. (B)

3. Bring braid 4 up and over braids 3 and 2 all the way to the left. (C)

4. Return braid 1 from the right, to the center, between braids 2 and 3 (D).

5. Bring braid 2 over braids 1 and 3 all the way to the right. (E)

6. Return braid 4 to the center, between braids 1 and 3. (F)

7. Continue this pattern (pulling up to one side and returning the opposite side to the center) until all the dough is used. (G) Join the edges on both ends and if need be slightly tuck them under the main mass to create a smooth finish.

Five Braids

This is by far the most complicated (even more so than the 6 braid), but the result is stupendous, a sea shell shaped challah.

1. Place the braids as shown in (A).

2. Lift braids 1 and 5. Bring braid 5 over and to the outside of braid 2 (B)

3. Pace braid 1 to the inside of braid 2 (C)

4. Twist braids 1 and 2 as shown (D). Place braid 1 inside and parallel to braid 5. Place braid 2 inside and parallel to braid 3.

5. Bring braid 4 across and place between braids 5 and 1 (E)

6. Bring braid 5 to the inside of braid 2 (F)

7. Twist braids 5 and 1 placing braid 5 to the inside of braid 4 and braid 1 to the inside of braid 2 (G)

8. Repeat this until all the dough is used and press the ends together. (H).

9. Turn the loaf so that what was once the right side is now on top. The top will have parallel strands of dough running at an angle to the length of the loaf. (I)

Six Braids

Six Braid Method 1:

One of the easiest braids to make, creating a flatter shaped challah.

1. Arrange the braids as shown in (A)

2. Bring braid 1 over to the inside alongside braid 4 (B)

3. Bring braid 6 over to the inside alongside braid 3 (C)

4. Continue the pattern bringing the left outer braid to the inside and placing it alongside the innermost right braid, then bringing the outer right braid to the inside, placing it alongside the innermost left braid. Press to close both ends and adjust until you have a symmetrical shape (D).

Six Braid Method 2:

This is very similar in concept and appearance to the 4 braid.

1. Arrange the braids as shown in (A)

2. Lift braid 4 and swing braid 1 under braid 4 and above braids 5 and 6, to the right hand side (B)

3. Bring braid 6 up and over to the far left side. Return braid 1 to the center alongside braid 3 (C)

4. Bring braid 2 up and over to the far right side.. Return braid 6 to the center alongside braid 4 (D)

5. Repeat the pattern until all the dough is used. (E) Press the ends together to create a smooth finish.

That's it for now. All you need to know about braiding challahs. Don't try absorb it all at once. Start with one method, perfect it and practise, practise, practise until it is embedded in your neural patterns. Then start on another and repeat the process. You should eventually become like me, that if someone wakes me up at 3 in the morning and asks me to do a 5 braid, I could do it with my eyes closed.

Les Saidel

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