Before this week, I didn’t realize that Sister Mary’s Irish Soda Bread is not Irish, it’s Irish-American. I adore the rich and raisin-filled bread, and I’ve usually made it (or a close approximation) each year as St. Patrick’s Day rolls around.
I do fondly remember eating earthy, unsweetened brown bread when my family traveled to Ireland about 15 years ago. We called it “brown bread” and let it go at that. I had no idea that the thick hand-cut slices I devoured in every pub, restaurant, and B&B we visited is, in fact, the 4-ingredient traditional Irish soda bread.
My newfound understanding is courtesy of Steve Webb and his delightful American Food Roots essay on making traditional soda bread. Since reading his essay a few days ago, I’ve found lots of recipes and references for the traditional type, and from now on, I won’t mistake the Irish-American version for traditional Irish soda bread.
While they are wholly different in texture and taste, both types are easy to make and quick to bake, with no yeast, rising, or prolonged kneading required in either case. When I raise a glass of Guinness Stout or Harp Lager this weekend on St. Patty’s Day, I’ll toast them both – Viva La Difference!
I’ve already given you my husband’s family recipe for Irish-American soda bread. Here is my take on the traditional Irish version.
Because it has only 4 ingredients (whole wheat or white flour, baking soda, salt, and buttermilk), there are limited variations on the traditional Irish soda bread. I used King Arthur “white whole wheat” as a compromise between whole wheat, which I find too heavy, and white flour, which seemed like a cop-out to me. The result was quite pleasant, wheaty but not overwhelmingly so.
Traditional Irish Soda Bread – 2 small loaves or 1 large loaf
- 3½ cups white whole wheat flour
- ¾ teaspoon table salt
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1¼ cup (10 ounces) of buttermilk
- Baking sheet
- Medium-large mixing bowl
- Wire whisk
- Sharp knife
- Measuring cups
- Measuring spoons
- Dinner knife (for leveling off dry ingredients)
- Sharp knife (for cutting cross in bread before baking)
- Pastry mat (optional)
- Large fork for mixing (not pictured & optional)
- Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
- Whisk together the flour, salt, and baking soda until well combined. Remember to level off the dry ingredients.
- Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour in the buttermilk.
- Mix just until the ingredients are mostly combined. I used the whisk at the beginning, then my floured hands. You might want to use a large fork.
- Dump the mixture onto the pastry mat dusted with flour and knead for the shortest time possible (30-60 seconds), just until it holds together in a rustic (not smooth) ball. For 2 loaves, cut the dough ball in half. Cut a deep cross into the loaf/loaves and gently place on a floured baking sheet.
- Bake for 35-40 minutes, and perhaps longer for a single loaf. The bread is done when it sounds hollow if you turn it over and tap it on the bottom.
- Cool on a wire rack. According to one recipe I found, Peter’s Mum’s Soda Bread, if you prefer a softer crust, instead immediately wrap the loaf/loaves in a clean dish towel.
Whichever soda bread recipe you choose, happy eating. If you’re into more bubble-bursting, check out this National Geographic article that debunks various myths associated with St. Patrick, Ireland’s patron saint. I’ll give you a preview – a quote from an American classics professor: “St. Patrick’s Day was basically invented in America by Irish-Americans.”