Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Irish Soda Bread

Wheat Arán Sóide
Image Credit: Heather "Moria"
Irish Soda Bread, or Arán Sóide, is named after it's primary leavening ingredient, baking soda (bicarbonate of soda). In other words, it's a quick bread, one that doesn't depend on yeast to rise. Irish Soda Bread is as common on Irish tables, whether at home or at the local, as corn bread and biscuits (also traditionally made with baking soda as a leavening ingredient) are in the American South. Historically speaking, however, soda bread may have originated outside of Ireland, but it was very quickly popularized there in the 1800s. It was popular in the U.S. because as a leavening agent baking soda was readily portable and simple to use as the American West expansion meant wagon trains, campfire cooking, and sod houses.

Soda bread is very easy to make, super quick and a fun recipe to make with kids because it's simple and doesn't require hours of waiting as yeast based breads do. The basic ingredients of soda bread are flour, baking soda, salt, and buttermilk. The buttermilk is absolutely crucial in terms of the leavening chemistry between baking soda and the the acid in the milk, and the flavor. If you don't have buttermilk, you can make an ok substitute by adding a little lemon juice or vinegar to regular milk.

Don't mix, handle or knead soda bread dough past the point of being mixed. If you over-knead or over-handle your soda bread, it will be tough, unpleasant and even flat. Soda bread is also traditionally a hand-shaped loaf, rather than one cooked in a loaf pan. Bake your soda bread in a greased cast iron pan with a lid or a cast iron dutch oven (much the best way!) or as a flat roundish loaf on a cookie sheet that you've greased and sprinkled with corn meal (you can cover the round loaf with a cake pan during the first stage of cooking). If you don't have a cast iron pot or pan with a lid, you're missing out on one of the most useful pieces of cooking equipment ever.

Soda bread is best enjoyed when it's fresh from the oven, or toasted for breakfast the next day. This is not a time to be frugal with butter; good fresh butter makes this amazing bread even better—but having said that, it's also startlingly good with high quality olive oil.

In parts of Ireland, notably Ulster, the same basic bread is quartered before cooking, and cooked on a griddle or skillet. Prepared this way, it's called farls, ostensibly derived from the Irish word fardel, or "fourths."

If you add raisins or even caraway seeds, it's not traditional soda bread; it's Spotted Dog, a sweet bread, or in Irish, báirín breac, "speckled bread," cognate with the traditional name for Welsh sweet bread or "tea loaf" made with raisins, spices, and tea, bara brith.

I have been known to stray beyond the basic additives of caraway seeds and raisins, and added dried tomatoes (soak them for a few minutes in warm water, then drain and chop, or microwave them in a mostly covered dish with a few tablespoons of water to steam and soften them), dried cranberries (I highly recommend the orange-infused cranberries), and grated lemon or orange rind.

Make two loaves, pull one out of the oven just before it's perfect, cool it, and freeze it for later.

Irish Soda Bread (via The Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread)

  • 4 cups (16 oz) of all purpose flour.
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 14 oz of buttermilk (or 14 ounces of sour milk)
  1. Preheat the oven to 425 F. degrees. Lightly oil and flour a cast iron pan with a lid (or a dutch oven).
  2. Combine all the dry ingredients; sifting won't hurt but it isn't required.
  3. Add the buttermilk to form a sticky dough. Place on floured surface and lightly knead. Knead just until the dough is shapeable; do not over mix or over knead.
  4. Shape into a round flat loaf. Cut a cross in the top of the dough (drag the knife part way through, don't cut all the way).
  5. Cover the pan with the lid and bake for 30 minutes.
  6. Remove the lid and bake for an additional 15 minutes.
  7. The bottom of the bread will have a hollow sound when tapped, if it is done.
  8. Cover the bread in a tea towel and lightly sprinkle water on the cloth to keep the bread moist.

You can sour the milk by adding two tablespoons or so of lemon juice or vinegar. to the milk and letting it sit for a few minutes. It will thicken and become bubbly. The sour milk or buttermilk are crucial because, in conjunction with the soda, they act as leavening agents and cause the bread to rise.