Fifth Century–Irish Soda Bread

Two loaves of Irish Dark Soda Bread

Mixed, molded and baked: 5 pm

(You can mix it and have it oven-ready in just minutes!)

Gave to the Harris Family–they are willing to try any bizarre breads of mine!

First off–I have to say, the title above is a misnomer to be sure. In the fifth century, the Irish had no idea of sodium bicarbonate, and Saint Brigid certainly wasn’t handing out soda bread to the hungry. Though American Indians were using this type of leavening agent long before the Europeans, it wasn’t brought to Ireland until 1840 0r so. So, I’m off by many, many centuries. But this being the month of the Irish in our home, I just couldn’t resist making soda bread at least once. It’s so easy, and tasty, and… well, we were having Irish stew, and it was raining heavily, and there was a fire in the hearth, and we just happened to have a bottle of Guinness on hand. It couldn’t be helped.

I’ve made this recipe before and knew it would be completely edible and yummy. It has a muffiny taste, a nice crust and would be a great bread to have a youngster make with some supervision. All they need to do is measure out the ingredients, stir a little, shape a little, and then get some help with the scoring and the oven entry. I use a recipe by Jeff Smith from his cookbook: The Frugal Gourmet–On Our Immigrant Ancestors (but he accidentally forgot the salt in his dark version, so don’t forget to add a teaspoon back in..). There’s also an amazingly simple but delicious potato leek soup recipe in this cookbook that I make time and again during periods of fasting.

Basic Facts on Soda Bread

  • In order to activate baking soda, known as sodium bicarbonate, you need acid. Lemon juice, cream of tartar, yogurt, buttermilk, cocoa, and vinegar all work. Buttermilk is the traditional ingredient the Irish use to activate the soda in soda bread.
  • When the soda and acid is mixed, carbon dioxide is released, this is what makes the dough rise. The activity begins immediately, so you don’t want to overmix your dough, or let it sit around a long time before sliding it into your hot oven. I definitely overmixed mine. I’ve been too caught up in yeast bread–in kneading, and kneading… Next time I’ll behave.
  • One of the primary mining spots for sodium bicarbonate is in Colorado. The natural mineral is nahcolite. I used to drive by one of the large mining communities on my way to Glenwood Springs when I was working for my father’s baking company and living in Colorado. They are proud of their baking soda! You can find this soda dissolved in mineral springs all around the world…
  • The first commercial factory to develop baking soda was founded in New York in 1846.
  • When you make soda bread, cut a deep cross into the top of the dough. This allows you one more way to offer the bread both to Christ, and to those you’re feeding, plus it allows heat to penetrate into the thickest part of the dough.
  • The traditional ingredients for soda bread are: wheat flour (preferable spring wheat, which contains little gluten), buttermilk, salt and baking soda.
  • I have always kept a ceramic sheep in my spice cupboard, right on top of a small jar of baking soda. I think everyone should have sheep here and there, some lost and some found, and even some in the spice cabinet…

There are many soda bread recipes on the web that you could try. I would find a simple recipe first, that doesn’t have too many additional ingredients, just so you can taste the bread the way the Irish really like it.

Soda bread is such fun to make. And it takes just a pinch of the time that a yeast bread requires. Let me know your results!

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9 thoughts on “Fifth Century–Irish Soda Bread

  1. Taking shelter from the rain by the fireplace while eating fresh baked soda bread and Irish Stew (washed down with a Guinness, no less)? Oh, Jane, what a lovely image you have painted in my mind. How I wish I lived close enough to join you! : )

    • I don’t like having a lot of knick knacks about, but I do enjoy silly things mixed in unexpected places. That sheep has been our family’s companion through countless moves, and why he has always wanted to hang out with the spices I’ll never know. But, there he is–perched above the baking soda, keeping watch!

      • Everyone needs companions like that ceramic sheep 🙂

        I must say that the sight of him on the can of baking soda is very comforting. When I saw the photo, I thought your home would be one of those places where all who visit feel cozy and warm (let us not forget the soothing effect of the ever present aroma of warm bread!).

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