As we approach St. Patrick’s Day, the minds of Americans turn to three foods: corned beef, cabbage, and soda bread. But unlike corned beef, the Irish in Ireland actually eat soda bread! Known by various names according to its flour content and shape, soda bread is eaten all over the Emerald
What is soda bread?
Soda bread is a bread, usually made with lower-protein soft wheat flour, that relies on the combination of baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) for its leavening. The ingredients are simple and few: salt, baking soda, flour, and buttermilk.* The flour should be relatively low in protein (gluten) so, cake or all purpose flour is your best bet (we use King Arthur All Purpose flour below for its consistent quality). In Ireland, they sometimes make it with varying proportions of whole wheat flour, creating what they often refer to as brown bread.
As for the leavening, the acid in the buttermilk reacts with the soda to create carbon dioxide. Because this reaction happens instantly, it is best to have your oven well preheated and ready to go before you start preparing the dough. Waiting to bake the bread may allow gas to escape from the dough, resulting in a denser, less airy bread.
How to make good soda bread
If you’ve ever tried Irish soda bread and not liked it, don’t go running off yet! Chances are good that the bread you ate suffered from one of three common problems: improper amount of baking soda (a gross, salty-bitter taste), over cooking (a dry, chalky texture), or undercooking (a soggy, doughy center). The solution to the first of those problems is, well, a good recipe—which we here provide! Some people think that soda bread should taste like baking soda, and that is false. First, baking soda itself just tastes bad. According to SeriousEats.com, “even an extra gram can produce an unpleasantly soapy loaf of bread.”
But even more importantly, the soda should be used up and balanced by the buttermilk. After all, if there’s soda left over, then there is leavening potential that has been left behind. Granted, there may be a faint hint of soda flavor left, but it shouldn’t overpower the creamy taste of the soda bread itself. One of the nice things about soda bread is that the added alkalinity will help the sugars in the crust to brown more easily, giving you a beautiful loaf and a very slight pretzel-y flavor. In the end, it takes surprisingly little soda to leaven a loaf, so don’t go overboard.
The other common problems of over- or under-cooking, can easily be solved with a leave-in probe thermometer like the ChefAlarm®. In the final analysis, soda bread is just a dense quick bread like banana bread, and dense quick breads should be cooked to 200–205°F (93–96°C), an internal temperature that assures that enough water has been absorbed or cooked out so that it is no longer soggy, but not so hot that the crumb dries out. Use the same temperature for banana bread, pumpkin bread, or pound cake!
Soda bread is best baked in the same manner as sourdough bread—in a hot cast-iron pot or Dutch oven. Starting the bread in a lidded pot traps steam, creating a delicious, browned and crispy crust. Allow the bread to cook for 40 minutes with the lid on, then remove the lid and insert a thermometer probe, cooking un-lidded until the center of the bread comes to temperature.
*Some people add raisins, some people add caraway. That’s fine, but we’re going to stick to a more classic version here.
Irish Soda Bread Recipe
Based on the recipe from our friends at SeriousEats.com
- 15 oz all-purpose flour (about 3 C), we used King Arthur
- 1 3/4 tsp kosher salt
- 1 1/8 tsp baking soda (don’t use more!)
- 2 1/4 C low-fat cultured buttermilk
- Preheat your oven to 450°F (232°C) with a heavy, lidded cast-iron pot in it. Allow it to preheat fully before preparing the dough.
- When the oven is hot, whisk together the flour, salt, and baking soda. Whisk everything together very well, especially making sure there are no lumps of soda left, which will cause brown, weird tasting spots in your bread.
- Add the buttermilk and fold the ingredients together with a flexible spatula, like our Hi-Temp silicone spatula. Fold together just until no visible pockets of dry flour remain.
- If you want a chewier bread, fold it together for another 20 seconds to develop extra gluten.
- Remove the Dutch oven from the oven, place on a heat-safe trivet on the countertop. Remove the lid.
- Scrape the dough from the mixing bowl onto a sheet of parchment paper in the hot cast-iron pot and form it into a boule-shaped mound.
- With a sharp knife, cut a large X across the top of the whole ball. This will allow the bread to expand into quarters, speeding the cooking of the center.
- Replace the lid on the pot and place the pot in the oven.
- Set a timer, like the Extra Big & Loud, for 40 minutes. Bake the bread.
- When the timer goes off, remove the lid from the pot and insert a ChefAlarm‘s probe into the center of the loaf. Set the high alarm for 205°F (96°C) and continue to bake.
- When the alarm sounds, remove the bread from the oven and tip it carefully out to allow it to cool.
- Slice and enjoy with butter and preserves or, yes, even corned beef and colcannon.
With a good recipe and proper temperature monitoring, you’ll find that soda bread is so easy and so tasty that you will want to make it all the time. The ingredients cost so little and the payoff is so big. Just remember to use your ChefAlarm to apply the 200–205°F (93–96°C) doneness for quickbreads and you’ll have warm, lovely smelling bread for any meal!
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