Irish soda bread did not originate in Belfast, just as potatoes weren’t indigenous to the green isles and tartans aren’t Scottish. The Irish picked up the soda bread tradition from Native Americans who had been leaving their breads with pearl ash, a precourser to modern baking soda. These loaves taste like a hybrid of a savory muffin and crusty loaf of bread, but they’re closer to your mama’s banana bread than a sourdough in their chemistry.
Pearl ash is a powder that is derived from a strong lye solution. Also known as pot ash, the substance begins with burnt trees. Ashes from burnt wood are mixed with water to make a solution, which can be as gentle as a pretzel flavoring or as caustic as a clog drainer. The solution is then cooked down to a powdery substance in a kiln, resulting in a powder that, when combined with an acid, bubbles and helps everything from biscuits to cakes rise up. When yeast wasn’t available, this ash was used in combination with sour milk (or buttermilk) to make quick breads that required less fuss, time and fermentation than yeasted breads. These breads were also not dependent on hard wheats. In order to have a tall, crusty loaf of yeast-risen bread, bakers need to work with flours made from strong, or hard, wheat varieties. The harder flours commanded a higher price than the softer wheats typically relegated to biscuits and pancakes, but these ash-leavened loaves made good use of the cheaper, softer wheat varieties.
Soda breads may lack the flavor development and custardy structure of yeasted doughs, but we love how quick they are to pull together and how easy it is to customize them. Our recipe calls for two parts all purpose flour to one part whole wheat (Spelt is my favorite here) and can be made sweet or savory. I’ll throw in a few tablespoons of honey and fresh thyme for a sweet loaf, parmesan and rosemary for a quick bread to serve with soup or, obviously, some finely chopped chocolate to pair with a hazelnut spread right out the oven.
Tips: If you’re out of buttermilk, replace it with the same amount of whole milk and add 2 tsps of lemon juice or vinegar for every cup of liquid. Be sure to use the baking soda in your cupboard- the one you’ve been keeping as a fridge deodorizer might impart the shrimp scampi flavor it absorbed on your top shelf.
This St. Patty’s Day, go ahead and thank both your Irish brothers and sisters and the original Americans for their contributions! Check out our recipe for a simple, quick and easy-to-flavor Soda Bread.
IRISH SODA BREAD
Irish Soda Bread
|2 cups||All purpose flour|
|1 cup||Whole wheat flour|
|1 tsp||Baking soda|
- Preheat the oven to 425F. Place the flours, baking soda and salt in a medium sized bowl. Pour the buttermilk over the flours, mixing just until the flour is moistened.
- Knead the dough for about a minute, then shape into a ball and place on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper or a touch of flour. Sprinkle the top with anything from caraway seeds to pepitas. Score the bread with two slashes (in a cross pattern) and bake for 30-35 minutes.