Irish Soda Bread

Slicing Irish Soda Bread

Soda bread is a variety of quick bread traditionally made in a variety of cuisines in which sodium bicarbonate (otherwise known as “baking soda”, or in Ireland, “bread soda”) is used as a leavening agent instead of the traditional yeast. The ingredients of traditional soda bread are flourbaking sodasalt, and buttermilk. The buttermilk in the dough contains lactic acid, which reacts with the baking soda to form tiny bubbles of carbon dioxide. Other ingredients can be added, such as butter, egg, raisins, or nuts. An advantage of quick breads is their ability to be prepared quickly and reliably, without requiring the time-consuming skilled labor and temperature control needed for traditional yeast breads.

We’re all familiar with “quick breads” like banana bread; usually sweet, moist, crumbly things that are mostly called “bread” because they’re baked in a loaf shape. When we think about sandwiches or toast we usually think of yeasted breads, that take hours of rising, kneading and maybe screw up your dinner timing if your kitchen is a few degrees too cold.

What if I told you there was a delicious, fail-proof bread that is dry and dense enough to be used for sandwiches or toast, and only takes an hour to make? Irish soda bread is all that, and especially delicious fried up in the leftover grease from cooking the meats on your full Irish breakfast.

Historically Irish breads where flat breads or griddle cakes, because the local flour didn’t have the right gluten qualities to rise effectively with yeast. When baking soda was invented in the 1840s it quickly caught on as a way to make higher risen loaves, until imported high gluten flours took over. In the 1960s traditional soda breads started to make a comeback at high end hotels, and today they’re again common across the Emerald Isle.

There are of course many variations. Whole wheat versions knows as “wheaten bread” in the north or brown bread in the south are popular. They come plain or with sweet or savory additions to the dough like nuts or herbs. Caraway seed and raisins are two of the most common additions.

The basic recipe consists of flour, salt, baking soda and buttermilk. Eggs and butter are commonly added. You can also find version that replace the buttermilk with yogurt or even Guinness stout.

Years ago I worked at an Irish pub in Madison, Wisconsin. We served brown soda bread with most of our Irish meals. Normally we bought frozen imported loaves, but occasionally we’d sell more than expected or have a problem with our supplier and have to bake some up in house. I remember the first time we did that I was blown away by how delicious it was. Unfortunately our kitchen wasn’t really set up to do large scale baking so it remained something we only did in emergencies.

The whole grain brown bread version remains my favorite type of soda bread, but today I’m sharing my recipe for a white flour version with raisins. I haven’t tested this recipe with whole wheat flour, but I’m sure it would turn out delicious.

Irish Soda Bread

Yield: 1 loaf
Prep: 10 minutes
Bake: 50 minutes
Total: 1:00

1 ½ cups buttermilk
1 large egg

4 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/8 teaspoon salt
3 Tablespoons + 1 teaspoon sugar
4 ½ Tablespoons cold unsalted butter

1 cup raisins

4 ½ Tablespoons margarine in place of butter 
Cooking spray for pan

Preheat oven to 400F. Prepare your baking pan- you can use an 8-10 inch cast iron skillet, a baking sheet lined with parchment or a silicon baking mat, or a lightly greased 8-9 inch round cake or pie tin.

Whisk together the buttermilk and egg. Set aside. 

In a large bowl mix the flour, baking soda, salt and sugar. 

Add the butter and cut it with a pastry blender, two forks or your fingers until butter resembles pea sized crumbs. This is a flour heavy mixture so it won’t be as uniform as pie crust, but do your best.

Add the raisins and toss until they are distributed and coated with flour. Make a well in the center and pour in the buttermilk mixture. Mix until a crumbly dough forms. 

Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 30 seconds or so, just until dough comes together into round loaf. If it’s too sticky add a bit more flour. Dough will still be shaggy and rough looking. 

Place loaf in your baking dish and use a sharp knife to slash a cross in the top, about 1 inch deep. 

Bake for 40-45 minutes, until a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean. If it seems to be browning too fast, loosely cover with a sheet of aluminum foil.

Cool for 10 minutes or so before removing from pan. Serve warm or room temperature with Irish butter. Store tightly wrapped in plastic or foil. 

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