History of Irish Soda Bread
By Engrid Winslow
The tradition of Irish soda bread is a much newer invention than the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day which began in 400 B.C. A bread made without yeast to leaven it was first reported in the Americas when settlers and indigenous people used potash before the invention of baking soda in the mid-1800s. Due to Ireland’s financial strife and lack of access to ingredients, the inspiration for Irish Soda Bread was one of necessity. It made use of the most basic and inexpensive ingredients available: “soft” wheat flour, baking soda, salt, and soured milk. For soda bread, “soft” wheat flour, a low-gluten variety of flour used in most quick bread recipes, is ideal, rather than the hard wheat flour most likely to be found in a yeasted bread. And, since Ireland’s unique climate is only suitable to growing wheat of the soft variety, soda bread became a perfect match for Irish cooks.
Soda bread was also an ideal Irish recipe as even families who lived in the most isolated areas with little access to cooking equipment were able to create this simple and filling dish. Since many of the lower-class and farmhouse kitchens had no ovens, the bread was cooked in iron pots or on griddles over open hearths. This unique cooking method resulted in the signature dense texture, hard crust, and slight sourness that soda bread is known for.
The traditional mark of a cross on the top was adopted for superstitious reasons. It was believed that if a cross was cut on the top of the bread it would ward off evil and protect the household. The shape of the loaves varies by region. Southern Irish regions bake their loaves in the traditional fashion—round with a crossed top— and Northern regions divide their dough into four pieces and cook triangle-shaped flatbreads (also known as Farl) on a griddle.
Modern recipes for Irish soda bread usually use buttermilk instead of sour milk and have other ingredients added such as butter, egg, currants, raisins, or nuts. Here is a traditional recipe followed by one that is richer due to some of those other mix-ins. Both recipes are a delicious accompaniment to green beer!
Traditional Irish Soda Bread (one round loaf)
4 cups unbleached white flour 1 TBL salt
1 tsp baking soda ¾ tsp baking powder
1 ½ – 2 cups buttermilk
Combine dry ingredients and mix thoroughly then add enough buttermilk to make a soft dough. Knead on a lightly floured board for 2-3 minutes until velvety and smooth. Place in a well-buttered 8 inch cake pan. Cut a cross on the top with a serrated knife and bake at 375 for 40 to 50 minutes. The loaf should have a hollow sound when rapped on the bottom.
Irish Soda Bread (one round loaf)
- 4 cups unbleached flour plus an extra tablespoon for currants
- 4 tablespoons sugar
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch dice
- 1 3/4 cups cold buttermilk
- 1 extra-large egg , lightly beaten
- 1 teaspoon grated orange zest
- 1 cup dried currants
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper.
- Combine the flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment.
- Add the butter and mix on low speed until the butter is mixed into the flour.
- With a fork, lightly beat the buttermilk, egg, and orange zest together in a measuring cup. With the mixer on low speed, slowly add the buttermilk mixture to the flour mixture.
- Combine currants with flour and then add to the dough which will be quite wet.
- Dump the dough onto a well-floured board and knead it a few times into a round loaf.
- Place the loaf on the prepared sheet pan and lightly cut an X into the top of the bread with a serrated knife. Bake for 45 to 55 minutes, or until a cake tester comes out clean. When you tap the loaf, it will have a hollow sound.
- Cool on a baking rack. Serve warm or at room temperature.