Peter's Mum's Soda Bread Recipe
Irish soda bread:
a brief history and introduction,
the basic recipe for white soda bread,
and some variants
(brown soda, treacle bread, golden soda, currant soda)
Which kind are you making? | Basic technique: easier than you think | Shaping cake | Shaping farl soda bread | Baking cake soda bread | Baking farl on the griddle | Other baking techniques
Variations: Spotted Dog | Currant soda | Golden soda | Brown soda bread (wheaten bread) | Treacle bread
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.
About soda bread varieties
Cake style brown soda bread
In Ireland, "plain" soda bread is as likely to be eaten as an accompaniment to a main meal (to soak up the gravy) as it's likely to appear at breakfast. It comes in two main colors, brown and white, and two main types: cake and farl. People in the south of Ireland tend to make cake: people in Northern Ireland seem to like farl better -- though both kinds appear in both North and South, sometimes under wildly differing names.
Cake is soda bread kneaded and shaped into a flattish round, then deeply cut with a cross on the top (to let the bread stretch and expand as it rises in the oven). This style of soda bread is normally baked in an oven.
These days we'd normally bake it on a baking sheet / cookie sheet. But in earlier times, before ovens were commonplace, cake was routinely made in deep, lidded iron casseroles, hanging over the open fire or sitting right in it -- the casserole lids being concave to hold coals or burning turves from the fire on top, so that the bread would bake evenly in radiant heat from all sides.
The cake style of soda bread can of course be eaten hot. But it's more usual to let the loaf cool down before eating it (it's a little easier to handle then). It's also a lot easier to slice, and that's the way it's normally seen in supermarkets and convenience stores country-wide, in both brown and white versions.
White soda farls
Farl is rather different. When making farls, the soda bread dough is rolled out into a rough circle and cut all the way through, crosswise, into four pieces or farls ("farl" is a generic term for any triangular piece of baking), and usually baked in a heavy frying pan or on a griddle, on top of the range or stove rather than in the oven. It's a flatter bread than cake, and moister after the baking's finished. Each farl is split in half "the wide way" before eating. It's best when eaten hot off the griddle, but it's also allowed to cool and then grilled or fried as part of other dishes, especially the famous Ulster Fry.
One important note: in the US and North America generally, there's a tendency to think of soda bread as something with fruit in it. This is not the case in Ireland. While people have for many years sometimes added fruit to the basic dough as a treat or for a change of pace, this is not usually referred to as soda bread, but as tea bread, fruit soda, tea cake, and by many other names. We have recipes for these below as well. But everyday soda bread in Ireland does not contain fruit.
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 200-300 ml / 8-10 fluid ounces buttermilk, sour / soured milk, or plain ("sweet") milk, to mix
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.
First things first: decide which kind of soda bread to make
If you're making farl, find your heaviest griddle or non-sloping-sided frying pan (cast iron is best), and put it on to preheat at a low-medium heat. (You're going to have to experiment with settings. Farl should take about 20 minutes per side to get a slight toasty brown.) If you've decided to make cake, find a baking sheet and preheat the oven to 450°. Full preheating is vital for soda bread.
Combining the ingredients: the basic technique
Sift the dry ingredients together at least once or twice to make sure the bicarbonate of soda is evenly distributed. Put the sifted dry ingredients in a good big bowl (you want stirring room) and make a well in the center. Pour about three-quarters of the buttermilk or sour milk or whatever in, and start stirring. You are trying to achieve a dough that is raggy and very soft, but the lumps and rags of it should look dryish and "floury", while still being extremely squishy if you poke them. Add more liquid sparingly if you think you need it. (You may need more or less according to conditions: local humidity and temperature, the absorptiveness of the flour you're using, etc.)
Blend quickly (but not too energetically!) until the whole mass of dough has become this raggy consistency. Then turn the contents of the bowl out immediately onto a lightly floured board or work surface, and start to knead.
The chief concern here is speed: the chemical reaction of the bicarb with the buttermilk started as soon as they met, and you want to get the bread into the oven while the reaction is still running on "high". Don't overknead! You do not want the traditional "smooth, elastic" ball of dough you would expect with a yeast bread. You simply want one that contains almost everything that went into the bowl, in one mostly cohesive lump. You should not spend more than half a minute or so kneading... the less time, the better. Fifteen seconds may well be enough, because you don't want to develop the gluten in the flour at all. If you do, you'll get a tough loaf. So don't overdo it! Don't be concerned if the dough is somewhat sticky: flour your hands, and the dough, and keep going as quickly as you can. There is a whole spectrum of "wetness" for soda bread dough in which it's possible to produce perfectly good results: farl in particular sometimes rises better if the dough is initially wet enough to be actively sticky. You may have to experiment a few times to come to recognize the right texture of dough.
How to shape the soda bread if you're making cake
For cake, flatten the lump of dough to a slightly domed circle or flat hemisphere about 6-8 inches in diameter, and put it on the baking sheet (which should be dusted lightly with flour first). Then use a very sharp knife to cut a cross right across the circle. The cuts should go about halfway down through the sides of the circle of dough, so that the loaf will "flower" properly.
Baking cake-style soda bread
Put the cake's baking sheet into the preheated oven. Handle it lightly and don't jar it: the CO2 bubbles in the dough are vulnerable at this point of the process.
Let the bread alone, and don't peek at it! It should bake for 45 minutes at 400-450° F. (One of our Irish neighbors suggests you give it the first 10 minutes at 450°, then decrease to 400°. Also, if you have a fan oven, use temperatures 10° lower or so, as fan ovens have a tendency to run hot.) At the end of 45 minutes, pick up the loaf and tap the bottom. A hollow-ish sound means it's done. For a very crunchy crust, put on a rack to cool. For a softer crust, as above, wrap the cake in a clean dishcloth as soon as it comes out of the oven.
Shaping the bread if you're making farl
If farl is your choice, use the same very sharp knife to slice the circle of dough into four wedges. Try not to crush or compress the dough where you cut it (if the knife is sharp enough, you won't).
Baking farl on the griddle
Dust the hot griddle or frying pan with a very little flour, and put the farls on/in gently. The cut edges should be 1/2 inch or so apart to allow for expansion. Give the farls 20 minutes on a side. They should be a sort of mocha-toasty color before you turn them. Keep an eye on the heat -- they scorch easily. When finished, take the farls off the heat and wrap them in a light dishtowel, hot side down. (The residual steam works its way up through the soda bread and softens the crust formed by the process of baking on the griddle, making it more amenable to being split and toasted later.)
Both ways, the soda bread is wonderful sliced or split and served hot, with sweet butter and/or the jam or jelly of your choice.
Soda farl is also one of the most important ingredients of the Ulster Fry, the world's most dangerous breakfast (nothing whatsoever to do with its area of origin: it's the cholesterol that comes with frying sausage and bacon and black pudding and soda bread and, and, and...). Click here for the Ulster Fry recipe.
Other ways of baking soda bread
Some people have begun resurrecting the art of baking soda bread in the pot, on the hearth, as was done in this country for many years before the average householder could afford a luxury like an oven. The traditional utensil was a kind of Dutch oven which has come to be known on this side of the water as the "Bastable oven" -- an iron pot about 18-20" in diameter, with a concave lid. The bread (treated as for "cake") would be put in the preheated pot: the pot would be covered and put down into the coals of the fire, and more coals piled on top. This approach produces a soda bread which rises wonderfully and bakes with great evenness.
But you don't need a fireplace to get a result very much like this, as the gifted baker Jim Lahey has reminded us by popularizing his no-knead method for baking yeast breads. His technique works perfectly well for soda bread, too. All you have to do is:
- Preheat your oven to its highest possible temperature (usually around 250° C or 475-500° F).
- At the same time, also preheat a cast-iron casserole with a tight-fitting cover. (Cast iron works best for this. However, beware of using your pots for this unless they have metal handles / knobs, or are guaranteed by the manufacturer to be able to handle such temperatures.)
- Allow at least half an hour of preheating time. When twenty-five minutes of this time has gone by, prepare the basic soda bread recipe as above. Mix it very well in the bowl, but after that leave the dough in the bowl and do not turn it out for kneading.
- Remove the preheated pot from the oven. Scoop or dump the soda bread dough into it. Put the preheated lid on the pot and put the whole business back in the oven.
- Bake at the highest heat for 10 minutes: then reduce the heat to about 375° F / 275° C.
- At the twenty-minute point, remove the pot lid only and continue to bake.
- At the forty-minute point, remove the pot from the oven. Allow to stand for a couple of minutes, then tip the bread out and allow to cool on a rack.
It doesn't get much simpler than that....
Variations on the basic soda bread recipe
Add raisins, and maybe another teaspoon of sugar.
1 1/2 lb flour, 4 oz currants, 4 oz raisins, 2 oz mixed candied peel, 3 oz butter, 1 tsp bicarb, 1 tsp cream of tartar, 1/2 tsp salt, 2 tablespoons sugar, buttermilk to mix (judge it by eye, as above). Sieve the dry ingredients together; rub in the butter; add the fruit. Add the buttermilk, roll out very lightly, cut into farls, and bake as for farl above.
Substitute about 1 cup of fine-ground cornmeal for a cup of the flour. One of my sources tells me this works better as cake than as farl.
A really heretical variation:
Add chopped Jalapeno peppers to the dry ingredients. Mix and bake as above. (EuroCuisineLady adds: Mum would probably have whacked me one if she'd ever caught me doing this. But it does taste wonderful.)
For "Brown soda" / "wheaten bread":
- 4 cups whole wheat flour
- 1 cup white flour
- Scant 1/2 cup oatmeal
- 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2-3 cups sour milk or buttermilk
Mix and bake exactly as for "plain soda" above. If you have trouble with this one rising, your local mixture of whole wheat flour may be responsible: try decreasing the amount of whole wheat and increasing the white flour.
This recipe now has its own page at our site, here.
Notes and additions:
Also: The irrepressible Deb at SmittenKitchen has a soda bread variant with fruit which is extremely good in the "tea bread" category, the kind of thing that no one here would be ashamed to bring out on the little tea trolley along with the regular soda bread. Give it a shot if you're looking for something a little fancier than traditional plain soda.