Irish Soda Bread is a hearty, delicious addition to the dinner table. And fortunately, it is also incredibly quick and easy to make. Here is the history of Irish Soda Bread and how to make a Traditional Irish Soda Bread.
I had a craving and it had to be resolved.
A few months ago, we were hosting a Twitter Party for DairyPure and one of the recipes we shared from their site was this irresistible Soda Bread without Buttermilk.
I could barely make it through the rest of the Twitter chat my cravings were so strong. Must make and eat Soda Bread right now.
Since then, I have indulged in more than a few loaves of Irish Soda Bread.
As I often do before I set out to make a new recipe, I set out to research other versions to perhaps do some tinkering and adjusting to come up with a recipe that matches my tastes.
When I began researching Traditional Irish Soda Bread, I discovered this is a controversial quick bread and I realized why the recipe on DairyPure called their version Soda Bread and didn’t include the word Irish. Because if you are going to call your bread Irish Soda Bread, you might run into some trouble if you start adding in sugar, eggs, butter, currents, etc.
Yes, I learned that traditional Irish Soda Bread contains FOUR ingredients, flour, baking soda, salt, and buttermilk. (Some argue traditional Irish Soda bread really only has three ingredients and doesn’t use salt. But I definitely prefer salt in my baking to bring out the flavors. So, I am going with the salted version.)
According to The Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread, an Irish Soda bread has only these four ingredients. “Anything else added makes it a ‘Tea Cake!'”
I do hope you feel free of course to try different versions of breads made with an Irish Soda Bread base, such as sweet versions with sugar, currants or dried fruit, or savory versions with caraway seeds, fennel or dill. While these breads are not the traditional Irish Soda Bread eaten since the mid-nineteenth century, no one is going to complain when they are enjoying your scrumptious creations.
The History of Irish Soda Bread
I am a bit of history junkie. So naturally I devoured, (ouch that is a painful pun – so sorry,) the history behind soda bread in Ireland.
While soda bread became an Irish dinner table staple, the Irish were not the first to discover the chemical reaction that creates soda bread. There are earlier references to the American Indians using soda ash and pearl ash or “potash” to leaven their bread.
In America, early soda bread recipes first appeared by Amelia Simmons in 1796 in her book American Cookery and by Mary Randolph in 1824 in The Virginia Housewife.
Bicarbonate of soda only became readily available in Ireland in the 1840’s and one of the earliest recipes that has been found for soda bread in Ireland is from 1836.
But due to the potato famine and the poverty in Ireland, soda bread became a staple in the Irish diet from the mid 1800’s and on.
photo credit: National Library of Ireland
This basic quick bread was simply the least expensive bread they could make. It only required flour, baking soda, and soured milk or buttermilk.
The wheat that grew in Ireland was a “soft wheat”. It has less gluten than the “hard wheat” that was more popular in America and the UK and does not work well with yeast.
In order to leaven breads with this soft wheat, (the Irish grew soft wheat and also imported from the US,) the Irish used buttermilk and bicarbonate of soda. These two ingredients were readily available as rural farmers would have buttermilk, as a by-product of making butter, and bicarbonate of soda, which was relatively inexpensive and not as perishable as yeast.
The acid in the buttermilk reacts with the base of bicarbonate of soda. This chemical reaction produces tiny bubbles of carbon dioxide that leavens the bread.
For these poor families, the result was quick and reliable, allowing families to avoid waste and easily make their own bread.
Since most rural families didn’t have ovens, but rather open hearths, the Irish baked their bread in griddles or in large cast-iron pots called bastibles.
photo credit: National Library of Ireland
The bastible had a lid and could be put right onto the coals. The lid was sunken so coals could be placed on top of the pot as well.
The Irish cut a deep cross through the top of the round loaf before baking. It is often said that this cross is to ward off the devil and protect the household — but the cross serves a practical purpose of allowing the center of the bread to cook through and not be too dense or under cooked.
How to Bake Traditional Irish Soda Bread
Now that we have a firm grip on the history of Irish Soda Bread, we can get down to the goodness of making it.
Irish Soda Bread is as easy to make as it is delicious to eat.
All you need is flour, buttermilk (or you can sour milk with vinegar or lemon juice,) baking soda, and salt.
As I explained above, the Irish used a “soft flour” that has less gluten and is more similar to our “pastry flour.” I rarely have pastry flour on hand, so I have used all purpose flour for my soda bread.
You can also substitute a portion of the white flour for whole wheat flour and create a “Brown Bread.”
The amount of buttermilk or soured milk you will need will also depend on your flour. You may not need the full two cups of milk, so add slowly and accordingly. The dough will be sticky and moist.
After mixing in the buttermilk, turn the dough onto a floured surface and knead very lightly, just three or four times, forming the dough into a smooth circle.
When making your bread, keep in mind that the key to making good soda bread is to NOT over knead the dough. Working with the dough too much will toughen it.
My daughter thinks that kneading bread is the most fun part. So when I am baking soda bread with her it is very hard to convince her to stop mixing and only knead it three or four times.
After I have made a large smooth ball, I like to cut my dough into two smaller portions. Then I gently reform into two smooth balls and place on a parchment lined baking sheet.
With a sharp knife, cut a deep ‘X’ across the top of your loaf or loaves. You can then brush with buttermilk (and melted butter if you want, I won’t tell anyone). I sometimes sprinkle mine with flour because I like the look of a flour dusted loaf of bread.
While traditional Irish Soda Bread is made in a cast iron pot, you can bake your bread with whatever you have available — a baking sheet, a cast iron skillet or pot, a baking stone. Whichever you prefer.
If you want to use a more traditional baking method, cover your pot or baking dish with a lid (another pan can serve as a lid to simulate the bastible pot) for the first 2/3 thirds of baking and then remove for the last 1/3 third of baking time.
I have not made my soda breads in a cast iron pot. I use parchment lined baking sheets and tent the bread with aluminum foil for a portion of the baking time. (Please let me know in comments what method works best for you.)
Bake your soda bread at 400 F (or 425 F — you may want to experiment to find which works best in your oven.) If you are making a large loaf, you will probably need to bake it for about 45 minutes. If you are making two smaller loaves, you will want to reduce your baking time to about 35 minutes.
If you are using a lid or tenting with aluminum foil, remove lid after 30 minutes (or 25 minutes for smaller loaves.)
If you are not using a lid or foil, after 25 or 30 minutes, check if your bread is getting two brown. You will probably want to tent it at that point with foil.
You can see that your bread is ready when the center X looks baked through and a toothpick comes out clean. As well, you can tap the bottom of the loaf and it should sound hollow.
After you remove it from the oven, cover with a tea towel and wait at least ten minutes before breaking into your loaves. I know it is so hard to wait. But if you cut into the bread too soon, it will be gummy.
When your soda bread has cooled for at least ten minutes, serve with salted butter and whatever else your heart desires.
Traditional Irish Soda Bread Recipe
- 4 cups flour - all purpose or pastry flour (or 3 cups all purpose and 1 cup whole wheat)
- 2 cups buttermilk (or milked soured with 2 Tbsp lemon juice or vinegar)
- 1½ teaspoons baking soda
- 1½ teaspoons salt
- 2 Tbsp sugar (optional and not part of a traditional Irish Soda Bread)
- Preheat oven to 400 F. If you are using a baking stone, place on center rack to heat with oven.
- If you do not have buttermilk and you will need to sour milk, add two tablespoons of vinegar or lemon juice to just under two cups of milk and allow to sit for five minutes, while you prepare the dry ingredients.
- In a large mixing bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, salt (and sugar if you want to sweeten your bread)
- Form a well in the center of the flour mixture and pour in 1¾ cup of buttermilk or soured milk. (You may not need all two cups of milk, depending on your flour.)
- Stir in buttermilk with a fork or spoon to create a sticky dough.
- When the dough comes together, turn dough onto a floured surface and knead lightly - about three or four times.
- Form a large ball and cut into two halves if you prefer smaller loaves.
- Shape the loaves into round balls, slightly flattening the tops.
- With a sharp knife, cut a deep cross into the top of your loaves.
- Place loaf or loaves on parchment lined baking sheet, or heated baking stone, or place large loaf in an oiled cast-iron pot or skillet.
- Brush with buttermilk (and melted butter if you prefer.)
- For a more traditional baking method, cover your cast iron pot or baking dish with a lid (another pan can serve as a lid to simulate the bastible pot) for the first 30 minutes and then remove for the last 15 minutes of baking time.
- If you are making two smaller loaves, you will want to reduce your total baking time to about 35 minutes.
- If you are not using a lid or foil for the first part of baking, after 25 or 30 minutes, check if your bread is getting two brown. You will probably want to tent with aluminum foil at that point.
- Bread is ready when the center X looks baked through and a toothpick comes out clean. As well, you can tap the bottom of the loaf and it should sound hollow.
- Cover with a tea towel, moistened with sprinkles of water, and allow to cool for at least ten minutes before breaking into your loaves.
- Serve warm with salted butter and honey or whatever else your heart desires.
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References and Further Reading