Irish soda bread traditionally contains only four ingredients: flour, salt, buttermilk, and baking soda. Purists would say that anything beyond these four essentials makes an entirely different bread. There is even a society dedicated to the memory and preservation of traditional Irish soda bread!
For many a hard year during the poverty-stricken times of the Great Potato Famine, this bread was the staple that kept folks alive when little else was available. Truly the staff of life.
The popular story is that the Irish developed the bread to meet a desperate need during this time, but another history says that Native Americans had been making a version of this bread for a long, long time, using pearl ash — a natural form of soda derived from wood ashes. It wasn’t until well after colonization that it was introduced to Western Europe and the British Isles.
Regardless of whom you choose to thank for the inception of this bread, I think you’ll find Irish soda bread to be a delicious and very easy foray into baking. Whether you go the traditional route or add copious amendments to augment complexity or sweeten up the deal, it’s a great bread for those new to baking or if you just want to put aside the yeast for a while, and bake something quicker that’s a little more predictable.
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The following, fairly basic recipe should give you a great result without a lot of fuss or muss. If you choose to add cold butter to the mix, I would liken the ensuing delight to a giant buttermilk biscuit … a crusty golden exterior with a dense crumb and soft interior. Adding fruits like dates or raisins will add some sweetness and variable texture, making it a great accompaniment to afternoon tea.
Throwing in a little extra sweetener like maple syrup or sugar can take this bread straight to dessert territory, especially with a little warm fruit sauce and yogurt on top. One of the beautiful things about this bread is that it’s kind of a blank canvas. It allows you to experiment endlessly with ingredients to see what really sets your mouth to watering.
- 500 grams all-purpose white flour (plus a little more for shaping)
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 ½ cups buttermilk
- 1 egg
- 75 grams unsalted butter (as cold as possible and cubed)
- 1 cup of raisins, chopped dates, currants, dried blueberries, etc.
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
- In a large bowl, mix together the flour, baking soda, and salt. Whisk thoroughly.
- Whisk together the egg and buttermilk. *
- Cut in the butter using a pastry cutter, small knives, or a fork. Work in until the butter is small and crumbed up and distributed throughout the mixture.
- Stir in the dried fruit or other additions.
- Make a basin in the middle of the dry ingredients and pour in the buttermilk/egg mixture.
- Using your hands, gently fold the dough over until everything is incorporated evenly. You want a mixture that is crumbly and barely sticks together. Do not over mix. If too wet, slowly add more flour. If too dry, add more buttermilk.
- On a lightly floured surface, form into a roughly 8-inch dough ball. Transfer the dough ball to a seasoned cast iron or parchment-lined baking sheet. I prefer the cast iron as it gives a crustier bottom crust.
- Score an X or another shape onto the top of the dough ball and bake for 40 to 45 minutes or until the outside is well browned.
- Transfer to a wire rack to let the bread cool for at least 10 minutes.
- Serve with your favorite toppings and enjoy!
*If you don’t have buttermilk on hand you can add about 1 Tablespoon of vinegar or lemon juice to just under 1 ½ cups of whole milk or half and half and wait at least five minutes before using.
- If your desire is to make the traditional version of this recipe, omit all of the optional ingredients and proceed with the recipe following the same steps.
- This bread can dry out quickly once cut. I recommend keeping it refrigerated in a plastic bag to extend freshness, and so it holds its texture.
- You can freeze this bread whole or in slices for many months.
- If you want a much sweeter bread, add up to 3 tablespoons of sugar with the dry ingredients. Maple syrup and honey could also be used but the bread may be slightly denser.