Ancestral Dish: Soda Bread 101

Top of the morning to you!  Now, kindly put down that cellophane-wrapped loaf of soda bread.

Why is Irish soda bread on a supermarket shelf, anyway? It does not have a shelf life. Heck, it barely has a plate life. It tastes great – but it does not keep. Fortunately, soda bread is ridiculously easy to make, so when it gets dry and crumbly (and it will, it will), you can always freshen things up.

In Irish houses, it was the everyday, cheap bread baked and eaten daily. As Irish cooking expert Rory O’Connell tells Epicurious, it’s the epitome of a daily staple: not pretty, but easy and tasty.

Plain soda bread tends to go fast, which is a good thing, believe me.

In her charming Recipes for a Perfect Marriage, novelist Morag Prunty sums up Irish soda bread nicely: “Every woman found her own way of doing it, and the ingredients were certainly never measured except in the cook’s eye for what looked right. You might be feeling generous the odd morning, and add a handful of fruit or a spoonful of cooking fat if you had it on hand. After a while, you learned how much flour would suit you and how much buttermilk would wet it.”

There are many, many soda bread recipes out there, but the one that made the most sense to me first appeared in 2005 on the foodie site 101 Cookbooks. It’s a good solid blueprint recipe, and at this point, I can say I have a system down. But as Prunty writes, the cook is always free to use her imagination. I expect this bread to continue evolving.

The recipe’s on the jump, if you want to have a go at it. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Irish Mum’s Brown Bread Recipe

Adapted (just a bit) from 101 Cookbooks.com

For one loaf:

2 ounces butter (preferably Kerrygold)

1 3/4 cups buttermilk, plus more if needed in Step 4

1 egg

3 cups whole wheat bread flour (see Notes)

1 cup unbleached white bread flour (see Notes)

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 generous teaspoon of salt

1. Preheat oven to 400F. Grease a baking sheet or full-size loaf pan (or spray with cooking spray).

2. Melt the butter over gentle heat, or in the microwave. In a medium-sized bowl lightly beat the egg and then gradually add the buttermilk, all the while stirring to incorporate the egg. Beat in the melted butter.

3. In another bowl, mix together the flours, baking soda and salt. (In Prunty’s book, the Irish grandma does this by shaking them together through a sieve. I whisked them a bit with a fork.)

4. Stir in the buttermilk mixture. If you are shaping a loaf to bake on a baking sheet, you want a wet but still scoopable dough – just solid enough for you to handle. If you plan on baking the bread in a loaf pan, you need something you can pour into the pan, like a thick brownie batter. If the dough is too dry, mix in small splashes of buttermilk until it is the right consistency. And do not overmix, or the bread will get tough.

5. Gently shape the bread mixture into a rounded pile and place on baking sheet. Or pour the bread mixture into your loaf pan.

6. Bake at 400F for 50 minutes on the middle rack. You want to hear a hollow sound when you knock on the bottom of the loaf or the tin. Wrap the loaf immediately in a linen towel or napkin to keep it soft, but be aware this bread is really best eaten the day you make it, with lots of salty butter.

Notes:

1. Ideally, you’ll be using a coarse-grained whole-wheat flour, like Odlums from Ireland, if you can find it, or King Arthur Irish-Style Whole Wheat Flour. The last time I made this, I used regular U.S. whole-wheat flour because that’s what I had. To confess all, I also used regular all-purpose white flour, not bread flour. They made a tasty bread, although I’m sure not as authentic.

2. Kerrygold butter is sold in many supermarkets near me, but if you can’t find it, basic salted butter will do.

3. This is the classic plain brown loaf. You could add 1/2 cup to 1 cup of raisins, but some Irish cooking authorities say the raisins (or sultanas, if you will) would have been a luxury, uncharacteristic of a typical everyday brown bread. They say the same thing about the butter, too – but I think the butter really adds to the texture, so I’m leaving it in.

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