Ask the Expert: Cornbread as Challah

What counts as bread?

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Question: Can I use cornbread instead of challah on Shabbat?

--Mary, Nashville

Answer: In fifteenth century Eastern Europe Jews started serving braided bread with their Friday night Shabbat meals, and called the loaves challah, which means "portion" in Hebrew, in reference to the Biblical commandment to give a portion of dough to God (Deut 15:21). Since that time Jews have had a vague conception of what constitutes challah--usually it's bread that contains eggs, and is braided.

But there isn't any definitive challah recipe provided by the authors of the Talmud. The rabbis don't give us one of those handy braiding diagrams, or provide a list of conversions from their Babylonian measurement system to our contemporary one. They do have some ideas about what has to go into bread in order for it to legitimately be called challah. I consulted with Rabbi Ethan Tucker of Yeshivat Hadar on this question, and he explained that "any 'bread' that includes five-grain flour (wheat, barley, spelt, rice, or rye) and other kinds of flour gets hamotzi and birkat hamazon" and thus counts as challah. But, you need to use at least a certain amount of five-grain flour in order for the bread to qualify (ie, you can't sprinkle some flour onto your salad and call it challah just because you're on Atkins). Rabbi Tucker says that one eighth of the total ingredients should be flour from one of the five grains, and in most cornbread recipes, this is not a problem. You also need to consider the bread a serious component of the meal and eat at least "four eggs worth" if you want to call your cornbread challah.

I asked George Greenstein, author of Secrets of a Jewish Baker what the ideal ratio of regular flour to cornmeal is in cornbread, and he recommends using 1 1/2 cups flour to 1/2 cup cornmeal. So before you make some cornbread for Shabbat dinner, make sure:
•    Wheat flour is at least 1/8th of the total ingredients
•    You plan on eating lots of corn bread with your meal
If you follow those rules, though, you're good to go.
 
Rabbi Tucker also warns against throwing lots of other stuff into your bread, thereby turning it into a muffin or a cake but still trying to pass it off as a challah. There's a halakhic basis for this, but also, you know, you'll ruin your appetite! What would your mother say?

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