Braiding Techniques

Appears in


By Jeffrey Hamelman

Published 2004

Better bread with water than cake with trouble.

—Russian proverb

My Early Attempts At Braiding took place before I got a job in a bakery. I’d hate to see one of those tortured homemade loaves now. I am sure my recollection is accurate: The strands all had a mind of their own. Some were thick as a rolling pin, others looked like pasta, and still others had a complete identity crisis, being overly bulging and anorexically attenuated at the same time.

But I’m sure I was delighted with these attempts; after all, I had succeeded in getting all the strands (most of them anyway) to stay put, even if it was through force and not skill.
When I finally did get my first job in a bakery, I was hired initially to make German soft pretzels, which I gladly did, by the thousands. Before many days had gone by, Susanne, my boss, asked if I would like to make challah on Fridays, a request to which I eagerly and instantly assented. Then soon enough she asked me to make a braided loaf of Swiss origin on Saturdays. I was on my way, and very happy with the opportunity to focus twice weekly on making braids—2-strand, 3-strand, 4-strand, and even double-decker loaves. But I couldn’t imagine the good fortune soon to come my way.
One day, Susanne brought in an old technical German baker’s manual, entirely devoted to braiding techniques. My eyes widened as I looked through page after page of precise, immaculate braids. How could anyone work with such skill and accuracy? These breads were perfect in every way, certainly requiring a dexterity I could never hope to attain. Perhaps my boss saw the feverish excitement on my face. Perhaps she sensed something I didn’t quite understand at the time. In any case, she offered to spend some time each week translating the manual so I could learn these fabulous methods.

And so we did. Susanne would translate in her strong German accent, “First strand up, fourth strand over, sixth strand down,” and I would follow along. What a wonderful endeavor: separate and chaotic lengths of dough, patiently tamed and coaxed into harmonious braided loaves. What I didn’t realize at the time was that the act of rolling pretzel dough hundreds of times each day, which seemingly was quite different work from braiding, had slowly given my hands an understanding about the vagaries of dough, and this would prove to be an enormous benefit as I immersed myself in braiding.

In order to give a day off to the woman who worked the counter all week, Susanne asked me if I would be willing to be the counterperson on Mondays after my bake day was over. At the time, the bakery was in a small location on a side street. There wasn’t too much business on Monday afternoons, and I was happy to work the counter. So for the next few months, until Susanne moved her bakery to a prominent building she bought in the center of Main Street, I spent Monday afternoons waiting on customers—and making braids. It was a great way to practice, to work out the finer points, and to acquire enough proficiency to begin making larger decorative items—braided flowers and animals, wreaths, and intricate lattice weavings. If there was one source of frustration, it was that I couldn’t concentrate only on the braids, but also had to help the occasional customer. After all, wasn’t it rather insensitive for a customer to come in just when I was trying to fashion sixty strands of dough into a cornucopia? Such impertinence!
Why braid? Why go to the trouble at all? Why not simply take a chunk of dough and stuff it into a loaf pan and avoid the cumbersome task of rolling out all those strands? We are fortunate, as humans, to have an urge—irrepressible!—to take something that is good and make it better, to take something pleasing and make it more so, to create beauty in any way we can. And this, I think, is why a braided loaf provides both baker and eater with more gratification than the same weight of dough baked in a pan. There is an immense delight in taking a number of discordant strands of dough and bringing them into a harmony. The beauty of shape, the symmetry of form, the rapport between hand and dough—these have always given braiding a special satisfaction to me. I hope some of that satisfaction finds its way into your hands as well.