Sunday, 13 July 2014

Irish Soda Bread

Irish Soda Bread
Soda Bread Scones

My own journey with soda bread is quite a personal one.  My Grandma was from Limerick and I had always assumed that it hailed from Ireland.  Therefore, doing a little research for this blog I was surprised to learn that it was indeed not from the Emerald Isle but from America!  The indigenous people of America first made the equivalent of soda bread using potash as the alkaline to make the bread rise, literally, ash which is put in a pot and water is added.

It has become a staple in Ireland, most people believe due to the Irish climate being much more appropriate to the production of grains with a low gluten content better for plain flour rather than the strong flour needed for yeast leavened breads.

I often read that soda bread is one of the easiest breads to make and a good one for beginners.  While using bicarbonate of soda as a raising agent instead of yeast may be less intimidating than yeast, there are still a few really important aspects you need to get right.

1.       What makes soda bread rise?

Bicarbonate of Soda.  Or ‘Bread soda’. 

What do you need to know about Bicarbonate of Soda?

Firstly, it’s an alkaline and is activated immediately on contact with an acid such as buttermilk or yoghurt and  heat. 

Why is this important?  

You need to have your oven pre – heated and ready to bake the second you have brought your dough together. 

How much soda do I need to put in?

Exactly the right amount.  If you add too much will not make it rise more, it will make it taste of bicarb.  Not what you want.  It must also be sieved in with the flour to make sure there are no lumps.  That will turn your bread green!

For this recipe we are using 1 level teaspoon.  Take a normal kitchen teaspoon, fill it up with soda and then gently level off with a dry finger.  Don’t do this over the bowl with the flour in it!

2.       What type of flour do we use?

Plain flour.  The same type of flour that we use for shortcrust pastry.  This type of flour is low in gluten which means that we do not knead this type of bread.  In fact it’s really important to knead or work the dough as little as possible.  Working the dough will toughen your final bread. 

While a lot of recipes will mention this, I really want to stress the importance here. 

While watching Rachel Allen demonstrate this bread at the Ballymaloe cookery school, I was amazed at how quickly she brought the dough together, lightly floured it, shaped it and then got it on the tray and into the pre-heated oven.   Less than 60 seconds. 

A note on flour and liquid quantity.

Different flours take a different amount of liquid.  This can vary due to the brand or even the temperature or humidity in the room.  Be ready to experiment to get the right amount of liquid that you need.  You want to add 90% of your liquid, mix, and then assess if you need to add more.  For soda bread you are looking for dough which is well mixed, soft to the touch but not too sticky.  If you are new to bread making it will probably seem wetter than you imagined was needed.  But you should be able to bring it together.

What do you mix your dough in?

The biggest mixing bowl you can find.

The best type is a plastic washing up style bowl with a round bottom.  You need to be getting a really good mixing action going with your stiff fingers formed into a claw.  This bit is really important.  It’s a mixing motion with a stiff claw and not a kneading / moulding motion. 

OK.  Remember …

1.       Pre Heat your oven.
2.       The right amount of Bicarbonate of soda.  Sieved in.
3.       Do not work the dough.
4.       Big bowl.
5.       Claw like mixing motion.

450 grams of Plain White Flour
350 – 400 ml of buttermilk or natural yoghurt
1 level teaspoon of Bicarbonate of Soda
1 teaspoon of salt.

Large mixing bowl
Baking tray
Big sharp knife


Pre Heat your oven to 220 C.  Have it on the conventional setting and not fan.  It must be at temperature before you start to mix.

Have your work surface next to you lightly floured.
Ready to pour

Sieve the flour, soda and salt into the big mixing bowl. 

Make a well in the centre and add in about 90% of your buttermilk or yoghurt.

Buttermilk in

Using one hand in a claw shape mix together into a soft but not too wet or sticky mass.  Add the rest of the liquid if you think it’s too dry.  You may need to experiment here.

The claw!

Gather it up into a big ball and put down onto your already floured work surface.

Wash and dry your hands quickly at this point.

Very gently bring it together into a circle by shaping with the flattened palm of your hand and flatten slightly.

The dough

Lift it onto a very lightly floured baking tray.

Make a deep cross across the top about half way through the loaf and immediately put it into your pre heated oven.  This is both religiously symbolic and also helps the cooking by reducing the inner mass of the loaf.

Deep Cross

10 minutes at 220 C then reduce to 200 C for a further 30 minutes.

Remember that oven do vary and you may need a little longer.  When you take it out it should feel quite light for the size and most importantly should sound hollow when tapped on the bottom.  If it doesn’t, put it back in for 5 minutes.  


To make the soda bread scones pictured at the top, simply cut the dough into 8 equal segments and reduce the baking time by ten minutes at the end.

Soda scones before baking

Follow the same recipe but add in a beaten egg to your wet mixture and 80 grams of sultanas to your dried mix before you add the liquid.  This is known as ‘spotty dog’ or railway bread. 

The team at Ballymaloe Cookery School also replace the sultanas with chocolate chips and have named it ‘stripy cat’.

Both ‘spotty dog’ and ‘stripy cat’ are gorgeous toasted with a decent spreading of real butter.

A real treat.

Spotted Dog

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