A little soda bread history
Irish baking over the centuries has been affected by two main factors. The first is our climate. The influence of the Gulf Stream prevents either great heat in the summer or cold in the winter. As a result, hard wheats, which need such heat and cold, don’t prosper. Those wheats make flour with a high gluten content that responds well to being raised with yeast. But soft wheats do grow well here.
The other factor has been the abundance of fuel. Ireland’s various medieval overlords could never exercise the tight control over forest land that landowners did in more populous, less wild areas, like England and mainland Europe. This meant that Irish people had less trouble getting their hands on firewood. Where there was no wood, there was almost always heather, and usually turf too. As a result, anyone with a hearthstone could bake at home whenever they wanted to, rather than needing to use a communal bake-oven to conserve fuel.
These two factors encouraged the Irish householder of the past two centuries to bypass yeast for everyday baking. The primary leavening agent became what’s now known here as bread soda — just plain bicarbonate of soda, to US and North American users. Hence the name soda bread. But for a long time, most bread in Ireland was soda bread: “bakery bread” was only available in big cities. Soda bread was made either in a pot or casserole over the fire, or else baked on a bakestone, an iron plate usually rested directly in/on the embers. From these two methods are descended the two main kinds of soda bread eaten in Ireland, both north and south, to the present day.
Making Irish soda bread at home
With all this said, all you need to know about soda bread is that it’s really easy and quick to make. The urge to be resisted is to do more stuff to it than necessary… since this is usually what keeps it from coming out right the first few times. Once you’ve mastered the basic mixture and technique, though, you can have a fresh hot loaf of soda bread (or a foursome of soda farls) within an hour of starting.
Here’s the basic recipe for white soda bread. All these measures are approximate. The flour’s volume and liquid-absorptive capabilities, in particular, will vary depending on the local humidity.
- 450 g / 1 lb / 3 1/2 cups flour (either cake flour or all-purpose)
- 1 teaspoon sugar (optional: you can absolutely omit this if you prefer sugar free soda bread)
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
- Between 300-350 ml / approx 10-12 fluid ounces buttermilk, sour / soured milk, or plain (“sweet”) milk, to
Buttermilk is usually the preferred mixing liquid: its acidity helps activate the bicarbonate of soda, releasing the carbon dioxide bubbles that make the bread rise. (If you prefer to make soda bread without buttermilk, there’s no reason you can’t, though the recipe works better with it. The flavor will be slightly different than when buttermilk is used, but the difference isn’t enough to outrage local Irish sensibilities, so don’t be overly concerned. See below for more details.)
If you want to use buttermilk but can’t get it where you live, there are a couple of things you can do:
- You can make old-fashioned non-cultured buttermilk from scratch, by churning cream — this method also gives you a nice lump of your own fresh, sweet butter at the same time.
- You can also produce a kind of fake buttermilk for baking purposes. See our page on how to make the “buttermilk plant”.
- You can artificially sour some plain milk by adding a teaspoon of vinegar or lemon juice to 2 cups of milk and waiting 15 minutes or so for it to sour.
“Sour milk” or “soured milk” isn’t milk that’s gone bad, but a traditional Irish cultured milk that uses buttermilk as a starter. (Probably it evolved as a way to stretch small amounts of buttermilk a lot further. The original Irish name for it is bainne clabhair, “clabbered milk”, or “bonnyclabber” as it’s rendered in Lallans and other Scots-based dialects.) To make it, you allow regular milk to warm to room temperature, stir a few tablespoons of buttermilk into it, put it in a scalded container, wrap this in a towel, and leave it in some peaceful spot at about 75 degrees F for 24 hours. The flavor isn’t quite as tart as buttermilk, but there’s enough acid to make the bicarb react correctly.
If you want to use plain (“sweet”) milk instead of buttermilk, go right ahead, but make sure to add 1/2 teaspoon of baking powder to the recipe.
If you want to know more about the soda bread click here.