Ireland: Peter’s Mum’s Soda Bread Recipe, with Video Tutorial

By | March 16, 2010

In honor of St Patrick's Day, I thought I'd share a Irish Soda Bread recipe I found on European Cuisines.  It even has a video on how to make the soda bread.  I've also included the history of Soda Bread which may interest you.

Making Irish soda bread at home


Soda bread is really easy and quick to make. The urge to be resisted is to do morestuff to it than necessary… since this is usually what keeps it from coming out right the first few times. Once you've mastered the basic mixture and technique, though, you can have a fresh hot loaf of soda bread (or a foursome of soda farls) within an hour of starting.

Here's the basic recipe for white soda bread. All these measures are approximate. The flour's volume and liquid-absorptive capabilities, in particular, will vary depending on the local humidity.

  • 3 1/2 cups flour (either cake flour or all-purpose)
  • 1 teaspoon sugar (optional: you can absolutely omit this if you prefer sugar free soda bread)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda 
  •  8-10 fluid ounces buttermilk, sour / soured milk, or plain ("sweet") milk, to mix

Sift the dry ingredients together at least once or twice to make sure the bicarbonate of soda is evenly distributed. Put the sifted dry ingredients in a good big bowl (you want stirring room) and make a well in the center. Pour about three-quarters of the buttermilk or sour milk or whatever in, and start stirring. You are trying to achieve a dough that is raggy and very soft, but the lumps and rags of it should look dryish and "floury", while still being extremely squishy if you poke them. Add more liquid sparingly if you think you need it. (You may need more or less according to conditions: local humidity and temperature, the absorptiveness of the flour you're using, etc.)

Blend quickly (but not too energetically!) until the whole mass of dough has become this raggy consistency. Then turn the contents of the bowl out immediately onto a lightly floured board or work surface, and start to knead.

The chief concern here is speed: the chemical reaction of the bicarb with the buttermilk started as soon as they met, and you want to get the bread into the oven while the reaction is still running on "high". Don't overknead! You do not want the traditional "smooth, elastic" ball of dough you would expect with a yeast bread. You simply want one that contains almost everything that went into the bowl, in one mostly cohesive lump. You should not spend more than half a minute or so kneading… the less time, the better. Fifteen seconds may well be enough, because you don'twant to develop the gluten in the flour at all. If you do, you'll get a tough loaf. So don't overdo it! Don't be concerned if the dough is somewhat sticky: flour your hands, and the dough, and keep going as quickly as you can. There is a whole spectrum of "wetness" for soda bread dough in which it's possible to produce perfectly good results: farl in particular sometimes rises better if the dough is initially wet enough to be actively sticky. You may have to experiment a few times to come to recognize the right texture of dough.

How to shape the soda bread if you're making cake

For cake, flatten the lump of dough to a slightly domed circle or flat hemisphere about 6-8 inches in diameter, and put it on the baking sheet (which should be dusted lightly with flour first). Then use a very sharp knife to cut a cross right across the circle. The cuts should go about halfway down through the sides of the circle of dough, so that the loaf will "flower" properly.

Baking cake-style soda bread

Put the cake's baking sheet into the preheated oven. Handle it lightly and don't jar it: the CO2 bubbles in the dough are vulnerable at this point of the process.

Let the bread alone, and don't peek at it! It should bake for 45 minutes at 400-450° F. (One of our Irish neighbors suggests you give it the first 10 minutes at 450°, then decrease to 400°. Also, if you have a fan oven, use temperatures 10° lower or so, as fan ovens have a tendency to run hot.) At the end of 45 minutes, pick up the loaf and tap the bottom. A hollow-ish sound means it's done. For a very crunchy crust, put on a rack to cool. For a softer crust, as above, wrap the cake in a clean dishcloth as soon as it comes out of the oven.

Shaping the bread if you're making farl

If farl is your choice, use the same very sharp knife to slice cut the circle of dough into four wedges. Try not to crush or compress the dough where you cut it (if the knife is sharp enough, you won't).

A little soda bread history

The cooking/baking hearth of an Irish cottage, circa 1780: courtesy Ulster Folk and Transport Museum

Irish baking over the centuries has been affected by two main factors. The first is our climate.The influence of the Gulf Stream prevents either great heat in the summer or cold in the winter. As a result, hard wheats, which need such heat and cold, don't prosper. Those wheats make flour with a high gluten content that responds well to being raised with yeast. But soft wheats do grow well here.

The other factor has been the abundance of fuel. Ireland's various medieval overlords could never exercise the tight control over forest land that landowners did in more populous, less wild areas, like England and mainland Europe. This meant that Irish people had less trouble getting their hands on firewood. Where there was no wood, there was almost always heather, and usually turf too. As a result, anyone with a hearthstone could bake at home whenever they wanted to, rather than needing to use a communal bake-oven to conserve fuel.

These two factors encouraged the Irish householder of the past two centuries to bypass yeast for everyday baking. The primary leavening agent became what's now known here as bread soda — just plain bicarbonate of soda, to US and North American users. Hence the name soda bread. But for a long time, most bread in Ireland was soda bread: "bakery bread" was only available in big cities. Soda bread was made either in a pot or casserole over the fire, or else baked on a bakestone, an iron plate usually rested directly in/on the embers. From these two methods are descended the two main kinds of soda bread eaten in Ireland, both north and south, to the present day.

Thanks for visiting today – I'll have a card for you tomorrow!

4 thoughts on “Ireland: Peter’s Mum’s Soda Bread Recipe, with Video Tutorial

  1. Angela

    Thanks for the recipe! I forgot to tell you I love the new look of your blog.


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