When you think of Irish Soda Bread (outside Ireland), a white round loaf comes to mind. In Ireland, however, the most commonly made soda bread is a wholemeal loaf. If an Irish person asks if you’d like some brown bread, this is almost certainly what they mean.
Traditionally, it’s a round loaf cross-quartered but more and more often, you’ll find it in a rectangular loaf shape. Probably because a round loaf leaves four heels/crusts/loaf ends and the days of “eat your crusts if you want your hair curly” are long gone. (I know no one in my family likes eating the ends.)
There are probably as many recipes for brown bread as there are homes in Ireland. Variations include eggs, oats, honey or brown sugar, butter or cooking oil, even Guinness! What it absolutely has to have is:
- wholemeal / wheatmeal flour
- plain/all-purpose flour
- baking soda /bicarbonate of soda
- a pinch of salt
Otherwise, it’s something else and not authentic.
The recipe below is from my daughter’s high school cookbook. It should keep for at least four days at a cooler room temperature or you can slice then freeze. (Don’t freeze then try to slice—it’s like trying to slice a brick.)
- 350g (12 oz) wholemeal flour
- 50g (1 and 3/4 oz) Plain/ All-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon of wheatgerm / rolled oats / flaxseeds
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon brown sugar or honey
- 1 teaspoon of bicarb. of soda (baking soda)
- 350ml (1 and 1/2 cups) buttermilk
- 2 tablespoons of sunflower oil
- 1 egg
In Ireland, buttermilk is now sold as a cultured milk product. In days gone by, it would have been the milk (whey) left over from making butter. The commercial stuff is like a runny yogurt. The original is a blue-white colour, very similar to skim milk but sharper in flavour.
You could thin some plain or Greek yogurt with milk to make an equivalent. Alternatively, take about 1 tablespoon of vinegar or lemon juice and add milk until the total makes about 250mL (1 cup). Leave it to stand for five minutes. It will curdle and look gross, but it cooks perfectly well!
Most people would eat a slice of brown bread spread with butter and jam (jelly) as a snack. In restaurants and pubs, brown bread and butter are the usual accompaniment to soup. Another traditional approach is to serve it with butter and smoked salmon.
After a big night out, however, many an Irish person would fry a few slices of brown bread in a pan with some vegetable oil. Fried bread has what they call “great soakage.” (I.e. it can delay the effects of a hangover by soaking up the excess alcohol!)
- Preheat the oven to 200 C / 400 F (drop 20 degrees if fan-forced)
- Choose your pan. This may be a 1 kg / 2 pound loaf tin or a 9-inch round cake tin. Line your loaf tin with baking paper OR pop your cake tin into the oven to warm before use.*
- Put all the dry ingredients into a large mixing bowl. (Make sure you have no lumps in your baking soda!)
- In a jug, whisk the buttermilk, oil and egg until combined.
- Add the contents of the jug slowly to the dry ingredients and stir to form a wet mixture. This should make a sticky dough. You may not need all the liquid.
- Dust a work surface with extra plain/all-purpose flour. Scrape out all the dough onto the work surface. Shape it to form a log or a ball, depending on your tin.
- If you’re using a round cake tin without a liner, take it carefully out the oven now. Add a dusting of plain flour on the bottom to prevent the bread sticking.
- Put the dough into the tin and press lightly down so that it meets all sides and has an even surface.
- If going for a traditional round loaf, cut a cross about 1cm or 1/4 inch deep now. *
- Bake for 45 minutes to one hour.
- The loaf is cooked when a skewer comes out clean.
- Alternatively, you can tip the bread upside down onto a counter and give it a tap. If it sounds hollow, it’s down.*
- If it needs more time check every 5-10 minutes.
- When cooked, you have two options.
- Hard crust on top: leave to cook for five minutes then turn it onto a wire rack to cool.
- Soft crust: Straight away, tip onto a tea towel. Wrap the tea towel around the loaf and leave it to cool upside-down.
* If you’d like to watch an expert make this from scratch, this clip features an Irish gran with a lovely accent talking you through the process in about five minutes on a local breakfast tv show.