By Aileen Marshall
Saint Patrick’s Day is coming up and that means there will be sales for corned beef and cabbage and traditional Irish soda bread. I myself, of Irish decent, only became aware of Irish soda bread as a young adult. I went through several recipes given to me by friends and family, before I settled on one that got many good reviews from the recipients. Most of the recipes I’ve come across over the years call for raisins, caraway seeds, nuts, eggs, butter and sugar. I knew that the real Irish soda bread was very plain, that the sugar was to cater to American tastes. But as I did the research on the history of traditional bread for this article, I was surprised at how far off what we eat on Saint Patrick’s Day is from the original Irish soda bread.
Why is it called soda bread? This bread, and others known as quick breads, use baking soda instead of yeast to make them rise. Most recipes today use buttermilk, but the traditional recipe calls for sour milk. The sodium bicarbonate, which is the chemical name for baking soda, and the lactic acid in the buttermilk or sour milk combine to form a gas, carbon dioxide. The released gas bubbles are what cause the bread to rise.
The early American colonists during the 1700s noticed the Native Americans using what was known as potash to make bread. Potash is actually potassium carbonate, which works the same as sodium bicarbonate. This is the first recorded use of a carbon-ate in cooking. The first known soda bread recipe was published in the United States in 1796. The book, American Cookery, noted it as a way to make fast and inexpensive bread. In 1817, an editor of a London magazine was challenged to come up with a recipe that used poor wheat flour. Poor wheat flour is also known as soft wheat flour or cake flour. The flour mostly used in this country is hard wheat flour, which has higher gluten content than its counterpart. The London editor’s recipe called for soft or poor wheat flour, mealy potatoes, salt, water, baking soda and muriatic acid (hydrochloric acid). Without the potatoes, this is a basic traditional Irish soda bread recipe. Yet it was an Englishman who first published it.
The earliest reference to a soda bread in Ireland was printed in 1836 in the Farmer’s Magazine of London. It said a writer from the Newry Telegraph of Northern Ireland had sent in the recipe using, “wheaten meal, salt, super carbonate of soda, cold water and sour buttermilk.” The instructions were to make it in a covered Dutch oven or frying pan, over a moderate fire, putting some coals on top. This is the way most Irish remember traditional soda bread being made. So it seems it may not have started in Ireland, but it had developed as a means to make an inexpensive bread. It is very plain compared with the version most of us know today. Around 1840, baking soda became cheap and easily accessible in Ireland. In 1850, the Dublin Quarterly Journal of Medicine stated “Due to the failure of the potato crop, a large quantity of bicarbonate of soda was employed by the poorer classes in the preparation of bread.” The version we know today would more likely have been made for company and was called a tea cake. The addition of raisins make it what the Irish would call “spotted dog.”
If you are so inspired as I have been, here is a recipe for traditional Irish Soda bread, courtesy of the Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread. A bastible pot was equivalent to what is known today as a Dutch oven, a large heavy pot. It was meant to be placed directly into the coals, since in those days very few Irish had an oven.
White Soda Bread
4 cups (16 oz.) of all-purpose flour
1 Teaspoon baking soda
1 Teaspoon salt
14 oz. of buttermilk
Preheat the oven to 425 F. degrees. Lightly grease and flour a cake pan.
In a large bowl sieve and combine all the dry ingredients.
Add the buttermilk to form a sticky dough. Place on a floured surface and lightly
knead (too much allows the gas to escape)
Shape into a round flat shape in a round cake pan and cut a cross in the top of the
Cover the pan with another pan and bake for 30 minutes (this simulates the
bastible pot). Remove the cover and bake for an additional 15 minutes.
The bottom of the bread will have a hollow sound when tapped to show it is done.
Cover the bread in a tea towel and lightly sprinkle water on the cloth to keep the bread
For our American tastes, here is a recipe that while not traditional, is more familiar
and appealing to most of us.
4 Cups Flour
¾ Cups Sugar
1 Teaspoon Baking Soda
3 Teaspoons Baking Powder
1 Teaspoon Salt
1/8 Teaspoon Cinnamon
¼ Pound Margarine
¾ Cups Raisins
1½ Cups Buttermilk
Sift all dry ingredients together.
Blend in the margarine until it’s like a fine breadcrumb.
Stir in the raisins.
In a separate bowl, beat the 2 eggs. Then add the buttermilk to the eggs.
Pour in the dry ingredients from the first bowl. Mix with a wooden spoon until
it’s like soft dough.
With wet hands, (dough is sticky) knead the dough lightly on a floured surface until
Form into a round flat cake. Put into a well-greased 8” or 9” cake pan. Make a cross
on top with a sharp floured knife to vent.
Bake at 350º F for 1 hour, then at 325ºF for ½ hour.
Cool on a rack.◉