100 Great Breads: Bread #9 – Irish Soda Bread

Hmmm, soda bread. Well what can one say about soda bread? It is beautiful in its simplicity, it is valuable in its rapidity (I am not sure that is even a word), it really blurs the lines between bread and cake. It is also highly contentious, specifically regarding the ingredients – especially when Paul is so brash as to call it a traditional Irish soda bread.

Paul uses buttermilk, a very common ingredient in soda bread, but you can just as easily use yoghurt, or a half yoghurt half milk mixture. My maternal family are from Co. Wexford and my Mum tells me her ‘aunts’ (you never know in Irish families if that means they really were aunts or just family friends) used to just put milk in the sun to sour and then used that instead. All that is really needed is an acid to react with the bicarbonate of soda, and all of these have a slightly sour taste which is part of the flavoured charm of soda bread.

Paul uses bread flour rather than the more conventional ‘regular’ flour. If is worth wondering if the Irish could have grown wheat with high gluten levels (i.e. bread flour/strong flour) whether they would have originally used that instead, and now don’t because of tradition. Conversely the ‘regular’ flour may taste better; I may test this as there are a couple of soda bread recipes for me to do in this challenge. The following is using bread flour.

Mixing and (not) Kneading

Right, well this bread has ruined my blog format. You do not knead soda bread, in fact you treat it like a mixture between meringue and pastry – you need to proficiently mix it, but mustn’t handle it too much. You must be gentle, yet forceful. You want the flour incorporated, so you are not left with pockets of the stuff, but don’t want the dough to become firm and tough. So Paul advises mixing all of the dry ingredients first (make sure you disperse the soda throughout the flour evenly), working in the butter (not essential for soda bread but it gives it a nice, rich flavour), and then adding the wet ingredients – in this instance milk and buttermilk.

Paul’s mixture actually comes out drier than my own recipe, and as you know I prefer my dough wetter, as a rule. But this was easier to shape and I didn’t need to flour my hands to do it. The dough is split in two and they are then shaped into rounds and flattened slightly.

It is necessary to cut the dough into quarters, to let the evil spirits out . . . by which I of course mean let the heat into the centre of the dough. But, here comes another ideological split. Forget the writings of Karl Marx, if you want a subject of debate ask a soda bread maker if they cut the dough completely through or do leave the four segments slightly attached!

For the record, I cut mine straight through; I even move the four segments ever so slightly apart. You can see from the two below the effect, the one on the left was cut through but not moved, the one on the right was separated slightly after cutting.

So the dough has been shaped, cut, dusted with flour ready for the oven (10 mins in so far!). Paul tells us to leave them to rest for 20 mins. This isn’t actually necessary, but it does give the soda time to start reacting before the baking begins.

The Bake

The smell of soda bread, like the smell of burning peat or the hoppy aroma of a pint of Kilkenny, takes me back to being in Ireland. Whether it was as a young lad running around pretending to be a Roman soldier at my Grandparents, or as a 25 year old running around Ireland looking at castles; the smell of soda bread takes me back.

Soda Bread

Soda Bread

The buttery scent plays havoc with my appetite and as I watch the magic happen in the oven, I wonder what delectable delights I can have with it.

After 30 mins I give the bottom a tap, it is hollow and I can now leave it to cool – but first, I have to remove the dogs from under the oven.

The texture of this bread is one closer to cake than it is to bread. If you think about it, this is a cake mixture without eggs so it is not that surprising. Because of this, I find soda bread is either something you really like (like me) or really do not (like my wife). We are both agreed though, it does taste better than that blasted milk loaf! M.D. loves it, but then she seems to throw the crumbly bread around the room as much as she puts into her mouth – and she does eat a lot of it.

Soda bread is perfect for the busy bread maker and I would advise anyone to give it a go once. From start to finish it took 1 hour, and then it is just a matter of waiting for it to cool.

History of Bread

And we return to our friend Aristotle. Who knew that bread making could be used to explain such complex philosophical concepts? But here it is once again, this time on Nicomachean Ethics:

“It follows that we do not deliberate about ends, but about means. Nor yet do we deliberate about particular facts, for instance, Is this object a loaf? or, Is this loaf properly baked? for these are matters of direct perception. Deliberation must stop at the particular fact, or it will embark on a process ad infinitum.” Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, iii.3.16

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