One would think a bread that has a taste and texture of yeast bread would contain — yeast.
Irish soda bread, usually a round, humble-looking golden loaf, is conjured from the simplest combination of ingredients: flour, baking soda, salt and buttermilk, barely stirred together in just moments and baked off without the need for very much kneading or any rising time. Then it turns out the way soda bread does — lifting to new heights while baking and ending up tender and finely crumbed, crusty-crusted and seeming so similar to some yeast breads (you can slice it up for toast or sandwiches) that one can’t believe there is no yeast involved.
Baking soda (or, as some Irish call it, “bread soda”) was introduced in Ireland in the mid-19th century. According to “The Oxford Companion to Food” (Oxford University Press; 1999) by Alan Davidson, the Irish took to baking bread leavened with soda because they did not have much of a tradition of making yeast bread. Soda bread gained its uniquely yeast-like stature from baking soda reacting with buttermilk or sour milk. It became quite popular in Ireland as a simple, quick and accessible way to put a hearty loaf of bread on the table.
In her book, “Irish Traditional Cooking: Over 300 Recipes From Ireland’s Heritage” (Kyle Books; 2012), Darina Allen, Irish author, TV host and head of the Ballymaloe Cookery School, describes and features recipes for different types of soda bread: “white soda bread” is made with soft wheat or all-purpose flour (and a variation of that called “Emigrant’s Bread” includes sugar and caraway seeds for a unique flavor); “brown soda bread” is made with whole wheat flour, and is denser and nuttier-flavored. Irish soda bread has also been called “Bastible Bread,” named for the legged Dutch oven it was often baked in. Allen learned to make the “daily soda bread” by her mother’s side, given her own little piece of dough to shape into a tiny loaf that ended up a bit too tough and crusty from over-handling, one of the basic no-no’s when making this bread.
Most all soda bread is formed into a large round loaf with a deep cross cut into its top before baking. Some have related the cross as a religious representation or a symbol of protection, or in the realm of Irish superstition, as Allen wrote, “to let the fairies out!” But according to “The Oxford Companion to Food,” the cross cuts could also have been fashioned for such practical reasons as helping the bread bake more evenly and be more easily quartered after baking.
Other uniquely Irish breads bear colorful names and their own stories. “Boxty” is a potato-based bread sometimes cooked on a griddle or baked in a pan; “Barmbrack” is a type of tea bread (made with actual steeped tea) baked with coins or other treasures inside for luck at Halloween. “Priest’s Bread” is a yeasted loaf made for special occasions.
But soda bread is the most widely known, loved and baked with regularity among the Irish. In her book “An Irish Farmhouse Cookbook” (The Appletree Press Ltd; 1983), Mary Kinsella recalls her mother making three large loaves of soda bread a day: “She makes the brown soda during the week and white soda bread for Sunday.”
Others, like me, who have a twinge of Irish heritage or, at least, some Irish gumption, reserve and observe the tradition of making some version of Irish soda bread every March. I first came to make soda bread using a mix and was wowed by the taste and texture, something about that combination of soda and buttermilk lends it a uniquely tangy and rich flavor and smell. When I visited Ireland, I discovered the real thing and more brands of mixes I tried. I eventually landed on some simple recipes to make my own from scratch.
Some soda bread recipes I’ve enjoyed were sweeter and included currants or raisins. Some were whole grain and extremely hearty. Some have incorporated egg and butter for a richer variation. Others departed altogether from the large round loaf into other incarcerations including Irish soda scones and even a muffin version. These days, I tend to favor the traditional recipes. But almost every soda bread I’ve made has been emblazoned with the cross and eaten with (whenever possible) butter imported from Ireland.White Soda Bread Brown Soda Bread
Rebecca Howard grew up in Kansas and currently writes the food blog, “A Woman Sconed.”