The History of Soda Bread
Soda Bread often brings to mind traditional Irish cuisine, but this type of bread originated in North America. When settlers from Europe came to North America, they found the Native Americans using pearl ash, also known as potash or potassium carbonate, to leaven their bread. In 1824, Mary Randolph explained this method of giving rise to bread in her cookbook, The Virginia Housewife.
It wasn’t too long after that publication that this method spread across Europe. The traditional soda bread as we know it today, began in Ireland when bicarbonate of soda (baking soda) became widely available.
Soda Bread is a Quick Bread
During the famines in Ireland, soda bread became a mainstay of Irish cuisine. Requiring just four ingredients, this quick bread also saved resources by taking just minutes to prepare and could be baked in whatever was available – an oven, a dutch oven over coals, or even a griddle.
Over time, different styles of soda bread emerged in Ireland. In Southern Ireland, soda bread was made with soft white flour, while in the North of Ireland, soda bread tended to be made with whole wheat flour. This bread was used to add bulk to what could be a merger diet. Bread with stew, eggs, or potatoes made the meal much heartier and was useful for filling up a hungry stomach.
Today, we enjoy soda bread because it’s an easy and delicious version of homemade bread that takes just four ingredients and about the same number of minutes to whip up!
What Makes Soda Bread Rise?
Instead of yeast, CO2 gas makes soda bread rise, and that is formed when baking soda combines with an acid. In the case of soda bread that acid is buttermilk. The CO2 is trapped inside the dough and the loaf rises as the trapped gas expands and tries to escape.
Soda Bread Variations
After you’ve mastered the basic soda bread recipe, feel free to create your own recipes with your favorite flavors!
Our favorite variations:
- Dill & Fennel Seed. To our traditional recipe, add one tablespoon of Dill Weed & Fennel Seed.
- Onion & Rosemary. Add ½ tablespoon of Onion Powder & ½ teaspoon of Dried Rosemary to our traditional recipe.
- Add dried raisins & Dried Lemon Peel. This is called Spotted Dick and in Ireland is served with tea!
- Add mini chocolate chips and a few tablespoons of sugar!
- Add very small diced pieces of cheddar, cooked crumbled bacon, and finely diced green onions.
Let your imagination – and pantry items determine what will be in your next loaf of Soda Bread!
With only four ingredients, it is important to use the best of each ingredient.
Flour. Do not use hard flour, high protein flour, or flour marked for bread! That flour is full of gluten which works well with yeast, but not with the reaction taking place in a quick bread. Low-protein flour, cake flour, or simple all-purpose flour is perfect for soda bread.
If you’d like to make dark soda bread, use half whole wheat flour and half white flour.
Baking Soda. Make sure your baking soda is fresh. You can test it by mixing ¼ teaspoon of baking soda with 2 teaspoons of vinegar. It should immediately fizz and bubble up. If it doesn’t fizz, you’ll need a fresh box of baking soda.
Salt. Salt adds to the chemical reaction in quick bread as well as adds to the taste of soda bread. Without the simple addition of salt, this recipe would be extremely bland! As with all the ingredients, you’ll want to use quality salt. We prefer a flake salt such as our Pacific Flake Sea Salt.
Buttermilk. We love the flavor of buttermilk, and it fits the bill of an acid that is needed to give rise to a quick bread. Other acidic dairy products can be used as well. Sour cream or yogurt thinned out with water or milk works well.
Actual soured milk also works in this recipe. Most likely milk that was what we would call past its prime was the original ingredient in Irish Soda Bread. If you don’t have raw soured milk, make your own by adding just a touch of lemon juice or vinegar to your milk. You’ve added enough when your milk separates/curdles and looks unappealing!
Technique or What We Did Wrong!
As simple as this recipe is, we have to admit that our first attempt at making it did not turn out well! That first loaf we made didn’t bake! It was raw even after an extra hour of baking! After reading more about soda bread and experimenting with more recipes, we’ve figured some things out!
First and foremost– follow the recipe! Our first time making this soda bread, we couldn’t believe how dry and crumbly the dough was. So we added more buttermilk. And even more buttermilk. And then a little bit more! That was our first mistake!
Which most likely led to our next mistake!
This bread is a quick bread because it doesn’t require time to knead and hours of rest. We argue it’s also called a quick bread because it really should go from stirring together the ingredients to sliding it into the oven in less than 5 minutes. Once the baking soda and soured milk (or buttermilk) come together, a chemical reaction starts to occur. Take too long mixing together your dough and that CO2 will escape before the bread is baked. You want that chemical reaction to occur in the heat of your oven not while you continue to stir or knead your bread.
And that’s just what we did! We stirred and stirred! And stirred!
Mix the ingredients just until your dough comes together.
We now know to stir everything together with a big wooden spoon and then use our hands just to squeeze everything together and quickly shape it into a loaf. The dough will be crumbly. It will seem really dry. That’s okay. Trust us – It should be dry and crumbly.
Sometimes our bread looks like this:
And sometimes it looks like this
Soda Bread is not always the prettiest bread! Often it looks quite rustic! And that’s okay because the ease and flavor make up for its lack in the looks department!
And now that you know what to expect and what not to do, let’s get baking!
Traditional Soda Bread Recipe
Traditional Soda Bread Recipe
Preheat the oven to 375°F.
Do not begin mixing the ingredients until your oven is already preheated.
In a large bowl, combine the flour, salt, and baking soda. Stir together well.
Mix the milk into the flour mixture. Just stir together. Then quickly finish combining with your hands.
The mixture should be crumbly and dry. That is okay.
Place on a small baking sheet or in a round cake pan.
Use a knife to cut a cross into the top of the loaf.
Slide into the oven. Bake for 45 - 50 minutes.
Knock on the bottom of the bread. If it sounds hollow, it is baked. If not, bake for another 5 minutes before checking again!
Remove and allow to cool before enjoying!
If you are looking for a sweeter version of quick bread, you’ll want to take a gander at our Orange Saffron Tea Bread Recipe.
The Virginia Housewife by Mary Randolph 1824