Marie has been an online freelance writer for over eight years. She has a particular interest in culture, history, and food.
A Family Tradition
In the north of Ireland, soda farls are the Irish soda bread. My Grandmother spent the 70 years of her adult life cooking this wonderful bread on an old-fashioned griddle before serving it up still warm, butter melting slowly over the top. I've put down her recipe here, and also a couple of secret reasons why no one's soda bread tasted quite like my Grandmother's soda bread.
My Grandmother was a remarkable woman; she raised a family of twelve children and ten stepchildren making them fresh soda farls every day for their evening meal. Even after they had all left home she continued making soda bread every day. Her kitchen was always filled with the warm, floury smell of freshly-griddled farls. Eaten still warm, with melting butter and a little home-made jam they were simply delicious. For anyone who has never tried an Irish soda farl I cannot recommend them too highly—they are a soft, dense bread, very satisfying, and they can be enjoyed savoury in a cooked breakfast or sweetened with clotted cream and jam.
My Grandmother's Recipe:
To make the soda farls mix the following ingredients in a bowl:
- 8 ounces plain white flour
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- Enough buttermilk to make the dough into a thick, kneadable consistency
Start with just a large splash of buttermilk and when the dough is of a thick, workable consistency it is ready to be cooked. It should be like very thick bread dough, not at all runny like pancake mix.
Meanwhile, warm your griddle in preparation. (If you don't have a griddle, a wide flat frying pan will do). Dust the griddle with a little dry flour to stop the farl mix from sticking to the pan. Turn the dough out onto a floured board, knead lightly to form a round shape—then flatten it lightly with a rolling pin. Cut the circle into four or eight wedges and bake them on the griddle, a few wedges at a time. It should take around 5 to 10 mins each side, depending on how hot your griddle is. (The Youtube video below is a useful visual guide but I would ignore what it says about 20 minutes on each side).
When the underside has formed a firm skin, turn the wedge over using a slice and turn down the heat if necessary as the bread cooks on its second side. After a few minutes of cooking on the second side, use a skewer to check if the farl is cooked through. Keep cooking until the skewer comes out clean. You don't want soft uncooked dough in the centre of your farl!
Let the farls cool slightly on a wire wrack. For best results serve warm with butter and jam.
If you cannot find buttermilk in your local supermarket, you can substitute it with normal milk mixed with a generous squeeze of lemon juice. It's the acid in the buttermilk that makes the soda rise and gives this bread its great flavour.
A Word of Caution:
Soda farls are the easiest bread in the world—once you've seen an expert makes them a couple of times! If you are trying this recipe for the first time, allow that it might take a little practice before you get it completely right.
- Make sure the dough is of a thick consistency
- Get your griddle at a good temperature—if it is smoking it is too hot, if the bread is barely cooking then it is too low
- Use a skewer to check each farl is cooked through until you get good at judging when the farls are ready.
My Grandmother's Secrets: Why Her Bread Was the Best
Out of her seventy or so direct descendants, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, no one has succeeded in making soda bread that tasted like my Grandmother's soda bread—despite the fact that she followed a simple recipe. I've asked around my relatives and I think I have figured out a few secrets which helped make my Grandmother's Irish soda farls the best:
- She never measured out the ingredients exactly.
- She always used her hands to make up the mix, never a spoon.
- The secret ingredient was love ... my Grandmother had a big heart, with room enough for her big family and I think when she was making her bread a little bit of that love must have dropped into the mix—its the only reason I can think of why her soda farls tasted so exceptionally good!
The "Other" Soda Bread
I'm always surprised when I go outside the north of Ireland, what people refer to as "soda bread." Just to keep things clear—in the north of Ireland "soda bread" means a flat soda farl cooked on a griddle. In the rest of the world, it seems, "soda bread" means the oven-cooked soda bread which we in the north call "wheaten." Confused? Well don't worry they're both great breads... so why not try making both of them?
If you're interested in making the "other" Irish soda bread, you can find a recipe (and brief history) here.
A Note on the History of Irish Soda Bread
The use of soda to leaven bread was not invented by the Irish but by the Indigenous peoples of the Americas who used pearl ash combined with an acidic ingredient to make their bread rise. The first written recipe for quick and easy soda bread is attributed to Amelia Simmons in her 1796 book American Cookery.
That said, the Irish have made soda bread their own and it continues to be very popular on the island today. The first references to Irish soda bread date from the mid-1800s when it was adopted by Irish mothers looking for a cheap and easy way to feed their (often large) families. The griddled soda farl would have traditionally been cooked over an open fire.
Today soda farls are an essential ingredient in an Ulster Fry (the cooked breakfast to beat all cooked breakfasts!). Some gourmet chefs are even experimenting with ways to reinvent the soda farl—serving mini-farls toasted with a variety of toppings such as smoked salmon, cream cheese and rocket, or goat cheese and mango salsa.
So feel free to use this recipe for my Grandmother's Soda farls and have fun with it—reinvent the soda farl in whatever way you choose! I used soda farls in a new way when I was creating some recipes for my article: Fun Ideas for St Patrick's Day Breakfast.