First of all let’s get some things straight: traditional Irish Soda Bread does not contain any fruit, eggs or fats such as butter or margarine.
If these are included in any recipe you find, it may be nice bread, it may even be Spotted Dog, but it isn’t Irish Soda Bread!
There are just four simple ingredients required, flour, bread soda, buttermilk and salt but you need the right simple ingredients to get the best results.
Choosing the Right Flour
Often when people try to make this bread away from home it tastes all wrong, nothing like the delicious stuff they ate while in Ireland. That is because Irish flour is different, it’s made from wheat grown in a particular soil and climate, and is soft and low in gluten.
Ideally you would be able to track down Irish flour (which you can, here, but at a stiff price!), otherwise the best choice is unbleached or plain white flour.
If you cannot get that, use all-purpose flour but do not use hard or bread flour. These flours are very high in gluten and simply will not work in breads that do not use yeast.
Milk, Sour Milk & Buttermilk
You also need to be fussy about the buttermilk you use – homogenised will not work well. Ordinary milk will not do – it is the high acid content in buttermilk reacting with the alkaline bread soda that causes soda bread to rise.
A good alternative is whole milk (not low fat) which has been allowed to go a little sour, in fact many Irish people use up old milk by making bread. In an emergency I have added a half teaspoon (¼ American teaspoon) of vinegar to fresh milk to make it acid – it does work, but is not perfect and tends to produce a heavier bread.
The secrets of success
There are people who consistently make delicious soda bread and others who just can’t seem to get it right. What separates them? Mostly it’s speed, but if there are ‘secrets’ to making great soda bread they are:
- No kneading, none is required
- A light touch – use only your fingers rather than your full hand to mix the dough
- Work fast and get it into a hot oven the minute the dough is shaped
The reaction between the buttermilk and the bread soda starts the instant the ingredients meet. That’s why it is vital to get the bread into the oven without delay – you want this magic reaction happening while the bread cooks. Wait too long and the reaction is all over before heat is applied and your bread will not rise.
So it’s very important to have everything ready before you begin and then get on with it as quickly as you can.
Ready? Let’s go!
|4 cups||1lb||450g||Irish white flour or unbleached flour or all-purpose flour|
|½ teaspoon||1 level teaspoon||Bread soda (Bicarbonate of soda)|
|½ teaspoon||1 level teaspoon||Salt|
|2 cups||¾ pint||0.5 litres||Unhomogenised Buttermilk|
Preheat the oven to 450ºF (230ºC/Gas Mark 8). Do not start until the oven is hot.
Sieve the flour, bread soda and salt into a large bowl and mix. Make a well in the centre of the flour and pour in about 2/3rds of the milk. Quickly and with a light touch bring the flour in from the edges and mix with the milk, until all the ingredients come together into a dough. Use your hands for this, never a spoon or mixer.
It is impossible to be exact about the amount of buttermilk needed, it will depend on the nature of the flour. Be guided by the look and feel of the dough, which should not be sticky but should come together easily into one piece of soft, slightly floppy dough.
If it is too dry and crumbly add a little more buttermilk; if it becomes sticky, add some more flour.
Once the dough has come together, do not knead, simply place it on a floured wooden board, pick up a handful of flour and rub it into the palms of your hands so that they are perfectly dry, and and shape into a flat round about 2 inches thick.
Place on the baking tray, then cut a large x on the top. This is to let the fairies out so that they won’t spoil the bread. Really. Well ok then, not really, but it results in more even cooking.
Do all of this as quickly as you can, from start to finish should take less than 5 minutes. Then put the bread into the oven immediately.
Wait for about 5 minutes, then turn the oven down to 400ºF (200ºC/regulo 6). The initial high temperature ensures a good crust. After another 20 minutes take the bread out and knock on the base. If it sounds hollow it is done, if not pop it back in for about 5-10 minutes and then check again.
The bread should be eaten the day it is made. This will not be a problem!
I live in Northern Ireland and I can 100% assure you that we often add dried sultanas and raisins to oven soda bread.
My mother did it, my grandmother did it.
It is available here in all home bakeries.
It is a perfectly acceptable soda bread and we certainly (those of us who ACTUALLY live here) would call it soda bread.
Adding dried fruit to oven soda is NOT an American invention, it is a treat.
It amazes me when people tell us ‘this is the only proper and authentic recipe’; there will always have been variations!