This light-but-hearty staple has more going on than meets the eye.

By Chris Malloy
March 10, 2020

Irish soda bread is a blessing for people who like their food easy with no sacrifice in quality. Irish food is all about simplicity, after all, and the flour-based delicacies of the emerald isle are one category of Irish cuisine that really shines. 

One of the most impressive things about baking soda bread is the speed. Soda bread gets its name from baking soda, which, added in the right amount, creates levity without the use and wait of yeast. (Some recipes do call for yeast and/or kneading, but know that this isn't required.) You don’t have to wait hours or overnight for a rise, either. In fact, you don’t even need to wait at all: dough for Irish soda bread can go right into the oven after making. Given the short time to mix ingredients, you can have a warm loaf on the table in under an hour.

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Not only can Irish soda bread be made in a short time, it has been around for a relatively short period. Baking soda was invented in 1846, meaning that, like the potato (which filtered across the Old World from the New), soda bread is a somewhat new development seen in the broader context of food history. Even so, it has been embedded in the Irish and Irish American consciousnesses for many generations, and has traveled far beyond.

To Bake Or To Buy? 

Either works. You can buy soda bread from grocery stores, especially around St. Patrick’s Day. Unlike the highly complex Italian bread panettone, soda bread isn’t something that requires a grandmaster to make. Standard commercial and grocery store bakers can knock out loaves just fine. And so can you in your kitchen.

Varieties

There are many varieties of soda bread. Some have white flour, some wheat, some both. Some can be a little sweet. Some can even contain herbs from the garden or dry fruit. The shapes of soda bread vary, though most are round, and they can be scored in many different ways. In Ireland, they’re often scored with a simple cross.

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Baking Irish Soda Bread From Scratch 

When making soda bread at home, keep a few things in mind.

First, as the name of the bread suggests, baking soda is key. You’ll want to be precise in how much you use. Just winging an eyeballed measurement is a pretty surefire way of dooming a batch of bread.

Managing soda bread right also means being precise with the recipe’s milk. The majority of soda bread recipes will call for milk or buttermilk. Using a dairy product other than the one specified in a given recipe could throw the whole equation out of balance. Baking soda needs acidity to trigger rising. (Think of how baking soda fizzes like crazy when added to vinegar.) Milk provides this acidity, crucial to the bread’s formation.

Though baking a good soda bread is easy, baking a great one is a little harder. The key is getting the hang of how baking soda creates the rise and crumb you want.

How to enjoy your soda bread? If you’re unwrapping a room-temperature package from the grocery, a very light toasting can help a fat slice find new life. Jams are great on top. So, too, are rich Irish butters, one of the best food products that Ireland provides. Fresh out of the oven, though, a hot wedge of soda bread might not need a thing.

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