I’m not Irish. My background is a mix of French, British, and Latvian. I’m not even Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. And as much as I respect Irish culture, I’ve never developed a taste for corned beef and cabbage or Irish stew. But there’s one element of the cuisine that I embrace every year: Irish soda bread.
How did that happen? It’s a little bit of a mystery to me, too. We were not a bread baking household, in part because my mother didn’t have time: She went back to work when I was in sixth grade, right before my brother went to college, and she was widowed when I was in junior high. We were not allowed to eat Wonder Bread, that squishy staple of many kitchen counters. Instead, my mother insisted on Brownberry, the grocery store forerunner of all those five-pound artisanal loaves that you now see heaved onto shelves in the bakery department.
But I must have had a recessive bread gene, because when I discovered a recipe for Irish soda bread in the back of Glamour magazine in high school, I instantly wanted to try it. A home-baked loaf seemed like an exotic change from our usual store-bought bread, and just as exciting was that recipe looked pretty simple. There’s no yeast involved, which means almost no kneading, and no waiting for the dough to rise. Plus, this soda bread had Mom-approved healthy ingredients, such as whole wheat flour, buttermilk, and, of course, baking soda. That was probably why she gave in when I asked her to buy an entire sack of whole wheat flour, even though she said, “I don’t know what else you’ll use it for.”
Simply the aroma of the soda bread was enough to make me want to bake it again and again. And, as it turned out, I was the only one in my family who really liked it, so there was lots for me. Even now when I bake it, the bread carries the significance of being something I discovered and began baking all on my own. And it’s the perfect recipe for March, not only because of St. Patrick’s Day, but because March is when you think winter in the Midwest will never end.
In researching this story, I found there are many variations on soda bread, and I have also tweaked the Glamour recipe through the years. That one called for currants or raisins, but after making it a few times, I started leaving them out. For one thing, if there are any raisins on the surface of the bread, they can get charred during baking. And fruit can get in the way of Irish soda bread’s primary purpose: being a conveyance for delicious toppings.
I like Irish soda bread with lots of good butter. You can have it with Irish or English cheddar, a blue cheese such as Stilton, and a goat cheese such as a spreadable chèvre. Of course, you can just as easily top it with smoked salmon and crème fraîche, or you might enjoy it with membrillo, the Spanish quince paste. Once the raisins are out of the equation, it’s a more versatile base for any number of pairings.
Now, please remember that this version of Irish soda bread is rustic. It’s not like a tea cake or a scone, or the kind of breakfast bread you find at Starbucks. (If you’d like a sweet version, check out something like this.) Because there are no preservatives, it’s going to go stale fairly quickly. If you forget to wrap it up, Irish soda bread can become Irish soda brick.
My advice is to consume it within 24-48 hours. In other words, I’m giving you the perfect excuse to eat bread.
- 3 cups whole wheat flour
- 1 cup white flour
- 2 cups buttermilk (Note: if you don’t have buttermilk at home, you can make sour milk by adding 2 tablespoons of white vinegar to 2 cups of milk; just use it right away)
- 2 Tbsp. sugar (white or brown)
- 2 tsp. salt
- 1 tsp. baking soda
- 3/4 tsp. baking powder
- Optional: Despite my own decision to avoid raisins, you can add 1/3 cup of dried fruits and nuts to the dough if you like. Just try to make sure that there’s no fruit on the surface of the loaf when it goes into the oven.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter a round baking pan or cookie sheet, or coat with cooking spray.
In a deep mixing bowl, combine the flours and aerate them with a fork or spoon. Add each of the other dry ingredients and incorporate them into the flour. Add the buttermilk about 1/2 cup at a time, mixing thoroughly with the dry ingredients. (If you’re using dried fruit and/or nuts, now is the time to add them.)
If you’re having trouble getting everything to mix properly, add more buttermilk by the tablespoon until the mixture adheres. By the end, you should have a soft dough.
Flour a flat surface and gently knead the dough into a ball (this will take about two or three minutes). This dough is sticky, and so I’ve tried a trick recommended by Paul Hollywood, the swashbuckling judge on The Great British Baking Show. He recommends rubbing your hands with a teaspoon of olive oil before plunging in. That cuts down on the amount of flour you need in the kneading process. The ball will look a little rough, and don’t worry if the dough crumbles as you’re doing this. Just pat it back together. Carefully place the ball into the round pan or onto the cookie sheet. Cut a deep cross into the ball, so that you are almost dividing it into quarters. (I know you’re going to say, “I did all that work, and now you want me to split it open?” However, the cross is necessary for the interior of the loaf to bake completely.)
Bake for 35 to 40 minutes or until it’s golden brown on top. The loaf should sound hollow when you tap the bottom. Let it cool until it’s slightly warm. Then slice and enjoy.
Should your bread become too hard over the next day or so, wrap a slice in a slightly damp napkin and warm in the microwave for 10-12 seconds before eating.