A Wee Bit o’ Irish Soda Bread

So, a few days ago, alert blog follower and old friend Jeff Jaquish sent me a PM asking about a good Irish Soda Bread recipe. I was at work at the time, so I dove into my online files, found the first one titled Irish Soda Bread, and sent that off to him, and I posted it here, too.

Then, this morning, with something nagging at my noggin, I dove back into my recipes and found much more thoughts and details in a second, unpublished file. I’ve got ahead and combined those here.

The first recipe is my version with far more in it, frankly, than a truly classic recipe for this stuff, so I wanted to include a good base model too. Somehow, I’d completely forgotten about baking to a higher temp in a Dutch oven, and that’s a crime – I’ve corrected that here, so JJ, here ya go again.

Irish Soda Bread, a Simple slice of heaven.
Irish Soda Bread, a Simple slice of heaven.

Back in the early 1800s, Ireland was poor as poor can be, so stretching food wisely was a necessity. Soda bread, comprised of flour, buttermilk, baking soda, and salt, was perfect answer to the problem, especially when the potato famine hit, mid-Century. And by the way, yes, for genuine, old school Soda Bread, that’s all that needs to be in there – Raisins, nuts, sweeteners, and whatnot are purely American affectations, truth be told.

Early commercial bakers discovered that bicarbonate of soda, (AKA baking soda), when mixed with hydrochloride acid, (Yes, Virginia, they really did that…), made for prodigious production of carbon dioxide – Lo and behold, they got bread much faster than they did by waiting around for yeast, (which wasn’t all that great back then), to do its thing.

Fortunately, home bakers were far more sensible, and got their acid from buttermilk – Much more benign, much less dangerous, and tastier to boot.

Those early cottage bakers, (AKA, Mom), would bake soda bread in a covered dish or skillet, a local version of a Dutch oven. They’d snuggle that dish right into the hearth, with some coals on top and some beneath, just as we do when camping these days. The results were and are a truly delightful bread, and it’s super easy to make.

As with all things house made, ingredient quality and freshness count a lot. You’ll want the freshest All Purpose Flour you can find, and yes, It needs to be AP Flour – the relatively low protein content therein means gluten formation remains relatively low, and that yields a nice, chewy bread that won’t get too tough. Likewise. Check your baking powder before you start – As we’ve discussed here before, that stuff does have an expiration date, so make sure you’re working with fresh powder. Finally, get your buttermilk as fresh and local as you can.

Now, for process, consider and abide by the following – This is a recipe you want to finish mixing and get straight into a hot oven. Unlike yeast, baking soda does its thing in a rapid and fairly short lived manner – Think about mixing Coca Cola and Mentos, and you get the idea. As soon as you pour in that buttermilk, the second hand on the ol’ stopwatch is in motion.

Finally, you’ll see a lot of advice on kneading Soda Bread. I initially advocated around a 3 minute knead, and that’s OK, believe me, but there is wide variance available to you, depending on what you like.

If you prefer things a bit more rustic, you can add enough additional buttermilk such that you’ll end up with a dough that is too sticky to knead, but too stiff to pour – that’ll be perfect – Put that in your Dutch oven and let ‘er rip. If you like a thinner, crunchier crust and a bit smoother crumb, keep the buttermilk percentage as shown and knead for a few minutes.

What I love about this stuff is the fact that it has a crumb and texture that, to me, is quite reminiscent of good sourdough. The beauty is that you can have this out of the oven and ready to eat in under an hour, all told, while good sourdough is dang near an all day adventure.

Give them both a try and let me know what you think. The sheet pan, lower temp version derives, for my mind anyway, a bit of a chewier crust, because it doesn’t take advantage of the steam factor baking in a Dutch oven will impart.

Urban’s Irish Soda Bread

4 Cups All Purpose Flour
1 ¼ Cups Buttermilk
½ Cup Avocado Oil
¼ Cup Unsalted Butter
1 large Egg
2 Tablespoons Agave Nectar, (Honey is fine as a sub)
1 Tablespoon Baking Powder
1 teaspoon Baking Soda
½ teaspoon Sea Salt

Preheat oven to 350° F and place a rack in the middle position. Make sure your oven is all the way to temp by the time your ready to slide the dough in there.

In a large, non-reactive mixing bowl, combine all dry ingredients and blend thoroughly.

Add avocado oil, 1 cup of buttermilk, agave or honey, and the egg to the dry mix. Combine thoroughly with a kitchen spoon.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for up to 2-3 minutes. You can stop when everything is well incorporated, or go on if you like things a bit more refined.

Form the dough into a round, and place it on a baking sheet – A silicone sheet covering the metal is never a bad idea.

In a sauce pan over medium low heat, melt the butter.

In a small non-reactive mixing bowl, combine melted butter and remaining ¼ cup of buttermilk. Use a pastry brush to coat the outside of the loaf with this mixture.

Bake at 375 for 30 minutes, then test the loaf with a toothpick stuck into the middle – Its should draw out cleanly. Depending on your oven, you may need to bake for as long as 45 minutes, but make sure you test at 30 minutes, and then every 5 minutes thereafter.

Remove from oven and transfer to a wire rack to cool. Allow to cool completely before cutting, (30 to 60 minutes).

NOTE: This recipe works great in a Dutch oven at 450° F for 40-45 minutes, too!

Classic Irish Soda Bread

3 Cups All Purpose Flour
2 – 2 1/2Cups fresh Buttermilk
1 1/2 teaspoons Kosher Salt
1 1/8 teaspoon Baking Soda

Preheat oven to 450° F and set a rack in the middle slot. Make sure your oven is fully up to heat before you slide the bread in to bake!

To help avoid sticking, line the bottom of a Dutch oven with parchment paper. We use a 10” oven, by the way, so that’s what this recipe is scaled for. Do the parchment thing even if your oven is well seasoned, because this stuff will stick.

In a large, non-reactive mixing bowl, combine the dry ingredients and whisk to incorporate fully.

Add the buttermilk and use a spatula to incorporate. When the dough just comes together, you can stop mixing if you like. Again, you can add more buttermilk here to get that too sticky to handle, but too hefty to pour consistency if needed. If you like your crust a bit thinner, continue to mix for another minute or so.

Use the spatula to transfer the dough to your lined Dutch oven, and then to form a basic round loaf shape. Use a sharp paring knife to score the top of the loaf – You can do quarters, or straight lines, whatever you like.

Bake covered for 45 minutes, then remove from oven and carefully transfer the loaf to a wire rack to cool.

Allow the bread to cool thoroughly before you cut it – It’ll need that time, believe me – Anywhere from a half hour to an hour or more.