How to Make Perfect Irish Soda Bread
The Irish developed soda bread for three very simple reasons:
- They had no yeast; therefore, yeast breads were out.
- Very few people had ovens–most cooking was done over an open hearth, and bread was baked in a covered pot in the coals or directly on a bakestone.
- The wheat in Ireland was soft, not hard, wheat which is what most yeast bread is made from. Soft wheat doesn’t have the gluten content necessary for making yeast bread.
Whatever the reasons, what we know today as Irish soda bread is a very slightly sweet loaf bread, with a texture reminiscent of a biscuit, and a flavor that is out of this world. It’s absolutely fabulous. I adapted this recipe from a couple I found online, working both Irish and American recipes into it. You can make it using just the all-purpose flour if you wish, but I do like the extra flavor the whole wheat brings to the party.
I'll also admit that real or traditional Irish soda bread isn't nearly as sweet as this. Much of the time it had very little or no sugar: I've seen it with only flour, soda, and buttermilk. But this style did become increasingly popular in the 19th and 20th centuries. And it's good. I also have an open hearth, but I have no intention of building a fire big enough to lay a bed of coals hot enough to bake bread. So there.
The one and only trick to this bread is not to over-knead it. The more you mess with the dough the tougher the final product will be. The hallmark of this little lovely is the phenomenal texture. So once you add the buttermilk, knead it only just barely enough for the dough to come together.
I’ve also heard that the bread is better after it cools and sits. Apparently you’re supposed to wrap it up and have it later in the day after an early morning bake, or even the next day. I personally don’t think a loaf has ever been around that long. In my house it doesn’t even get to cool off before it’s gone.
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 cup whole wheat flour
- 5 tablespoons white sugar
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup butter, room temperature
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 1 egg
- 1/4 cup butter, room temperature
- 1/4 cup buttermilk, warmed slightly
- Preheat oven to 375 F. Lightly grease a large baking sheet. You’ll probably have the paper wrapper off a stick of butter – use that to put a thin layer of butter on the baking sheet. If not, just use a little bit of oil or butter on a paper towel.
- In a large bowl, or in the bowl of a mixer, whisk together the first five ingredients. Stir in 1 cup of the buttermilk and the egg. You may need to quickly pinch the butter into the dough with your fingers. It can be very rough.
- Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead slightly. DO not over-knead the dough.
- Form dough into a round and place on the baking sheet. In a small mixing bowl or a measuring cup place the ¼ cup buttermilk and ¼ cup butter. Microwave just until the butter is melted and the buttermilk is warm.*
- Brush loaf with the buttermilk mixture. Use a sharp knife to cut an 'X' into the top of the loaf. Make sure the x is nice and deep - you want to go almost halfway through the loaf. That will allow the bread to rise as it should.
- Bake in preheated oven for 45 to 50 minutes. Every fifteen minutes or so, brush the top with more of the butter/buttermilk mixture until it's done or you run out of buttermilk, whichever comes first.
- You can either run a toothpick or skewer into it - to see if it comes out clean, or you can tap it. It won't sound as 'thumpy' as traditional French or Italian loaves, but it will 'feel' hollow when done.
*The first time I made this I simply put the melted butter into the buttermilk, which is what the original recipe instructed. The cold buttermilk immediately solidified the butter and I had a gloppy mess. I used it anyway, which I shouldn’t have. The mixture wasn’t smooth going on top of the bread, and the crust didn’t brown evenly. In addition, it glued the x I cut into the loaf back together, so it wasn’t nearly as pretty as it should have been. Tasted great though. The kids and I ate it standing at the kitchen counter. Never even made it to the rack to cool. Kitchen mistakes are helpful - and can be delicious!
© 2010 Jan Charles