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Irish Soda Bread

January 27, 2015

This bread can be made so quickly that you can start from scratch and be able to eat a slice all in your lunch hour. It only requires four ingredients: flour, salt, soda and buttermilk. As the name implies, it’s a versatile bread. Since it doesn’t have much of its own flavor, unlike yeast breads, it’s the perfect bread for hearty soups, stew, chowders and chilis. But it also works well with various toppings, from deliciously creamy and slightly salty Irish butter and drizzled honey to tangy and tart preserves, jams and marmalades.

Because of its simplicity, it can suffer from an over abundance of density. Working this dough for too long will result in a denser bread that doesn’t puff up during baking. And because we work the dough so little, the salt needs to be very finely ground, either with a mill or in a mortar and pestle. Like biscuits, we’ll mix the dry ingredients together in a large bowl and form a well in the middle. The buttermilk gets poured in the middle. While you can use your hands to mix this around, using a rubber scraper is less messy. Once most of the flour has been moistened by the buttermilk, pour the entire mess onto a dry surface and gently knead it until it forms a cohesive ball of dough.

Since we don’t use any organic (living, not the trendy food term of late) leaveners like yeast, we have to rely on a chemical reaction to lift this bread. And if you’ve passed sixth grade chemistry, you know that a weak acid (buttermilk) plus a mild base (baking soda) equals a bubbling grade school volcano. Lucky for us, we have a gluten matrix that keeps the CO2 bubbles in place where they can do the most work: creating a slightly dense but beautifully moist bread.

This bread is also baked at a significantly higher temperature than traditional yeast breads. Our target temp is 425°F, and at these temps the bread can go from baked to burnt in a matter of minutes. Depending on the accuracy of your oven thermo and how well it maintains that temp, you may have to adjust your heat and baking time. As far as we can tell, thumping a loaf of bread on the bottom and listening for a “hollow” sound is only good if you’re in a bakery trying to choose a properly baked loaf. In practice this doesn’t work if you are trying to determine how done your bread is and whether it’s ready to come out of the oven. But because this bread is so simple with so few ingredients, you can spare several loaves for trial and error. Those that are underbaked are perfect for the toaster which finishes baking the bread before it begins toasting it.

This bread is best eaten a few minutes out of the oven while it is still piping hot. Toppings melt and combine, and soups and stews stay hot even after dipping them. Wherever you find yourself reaching for soda crackers, this soda bread is far more satisfying. Make a couple of loaves today.

Irish Soda Bread

  • 3 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon finely ground kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 ¾ cups buttermilk, low fat or whole
  • cooking spray

Preheat the oven to 425°F. Spray an 11”x15” jellyroll pan with cooking spray.

Finely grind the salt or pulverize it in a mortar and pestle with the baking soda until it is powdery. Whisk the salt and soda in the flour in a large mixing bowl. Make a well in the center and pour the buttermilk into it. Combine the flour and buttermilk either by hand or with a rubber scraper until a loose dough forms. Turn out the dough onto a dry surface and knead it until it forms a soft ball. You may need additional flour if it sticks to your hands.

Cut the dough in half and shape each half into a 6-inch circle. Place each half on the jellyroll pan. Using a sharp knife, slice a cross in the top of each loaf cutting at least halfway through the dough. Lightly dust the tops with flour.

Bake the loaves in a preheated 425°F convection oven for 25-30 minutes or until the loaves are golden brown. If you don’t have a convection oven, turn the loaves halfway through the baking process. If you cut into the loaf and still have a slight doughy center, add 2-3 minutes onto the bake time for your next loaves.

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