Any time I’m eating smoked salmon I need a couple of slices of brown soda bread to go along with it. Its moist earthy flavour complements the smoky tang of the salmon, just add a squeeze of lemon and you have an Irish classic that’s served in pubs and restaurants up and down the country.
Here in Ireland we don’t have a massive food culture. No long history of food with lots of classic dishes like the French or Italians. They’ve got coq au vin, pot au feu, risotto and osso bucco. We’ve got bacon and cabbage, some of the best ingredients in the world….and our brown bread.
Brown soda bread is associated with Ireland because of the extreme poverty here in the late 19th century. While other parts of the British isles moved on to bread made with hard wheat flour and yeast we stuck with soda bread simply because these other ingredients weren’t available in rural Ireland. Plus all you needed to make it was a pot and a fire.
Go out to any restaurant anywhere in the country and you’ll find it in the bread basket they bring to your table. For me it tastes as good as the finest brioche or the best focaccia plus its a lot better for you and far easier to make.
Every chef in every restaurant has their own recipe. Some like to add butter and eggs for an extra bit of richness. Or treacle and honey for sweetness. Any type of oats or wheat bran can add to its earthy flavour. While all sorts of seed – pumpkin, sesame, poppy or sunflower can give it a different texture.
Brown soda bread is a bit like christmas pudding in a lot of people’s minds. It’s always their mother or grandmother who made the best they ever tasted. For me it was my auntie, god rest her. I can remember as a teenager when I was just getting an interest in food asking her for the recipe. She just laughed and said she didn’t have one but that she’d show me
tis just a couple of handfuls of flour, some buttermilk, and bread soda
She use to call it a cake of brown bread and that’s exactly what its texture was like soft, moist and crumbly.
I watched her make it a couple of times and the whole process took about 2 minutes, mix the ingredients, a quick knead, and lash it in the oven. Quick and simple, no proving or knocking back like a yeast dough, and it was by far the best brown soda bread I ever tasted. The one concession I’ve made to the traditional recipe is to add a little treacle. It gives just a little sweetness and I love the deep, rich, brown colour it gives the loaf.
Over the years I’ve tried to recreate her bread with no success. I gave up years ago and now realise it was down to her oven, an old turf fired Stanley range which was as hot as a furnace, that made all the difference. In fact, my try with one of the Village Bakery machines was very close to the original, but still not the same.
At its core brown Irish soda bread is just 4 ingredients. Flour, bread soda, buttermilk , and salt. Its amazing though how mixing just these 4 ingredients in different proportions can have such varying results. No two recipes are ever the same.
Some chefs like to use all wholemeal, others half wholemeal to half white flour. If you want a loaf with a very crumbly texture and a nutty flavour then go with just wholemeal. The more plain white flour you add to the dough the lighter the bread. I use 4 parts wholemeal to one part plain to get bread with the flavour and texture I like. What ever you do don’t use strong or bakers flour, its got way too much gluten.
Leavening The Bread
Soda breads got no yeast. Instead its the chemical reaction between the acid in the buttermilk and the alkaline in the soda that produces co2 and gives the bread a lift.
These days buttermilk is produced by artificially souring the milk instead of it being a byproduct of making butter. I’ve often wondered if the bread tasted any better in days gone by when made with the real deal.
If you have any milk that’s gone sour putting it in soda bread is a great way to use it up. I’ve also seen some soda bread recipes with yogurt, vinegar, and lemon juice used as the acid to produce the co2. I’ve used regular milk soured with some lemon juice in it before with decent results, but only because there was a cock-up with deliveries at work and we had no buttermilk.
Bread soda has got a really bitter taste and one teaspoon per 500g of flour is enough to give a good rise to your loaf without affecting the flavour.
Once you mix the dough together the chemical reaction that leavens the bread begins so get it in the oven on the double or it might not rise as well as it should. Theres no need to knead, this will just make the bread tough. Simply form it into a ball, put it in the tin, and get it straight in the oven.
You don’t even really need to cook it in a tin and can just form it into a loaf shape and cook it on a tray. It’s a great way to spare yourself a bit of washing up. The dough is quite wet so you’ll need to give it a little knead first, just don’t over do it.
Last thing I do before I cook it is sive a little white flour over the top to give it a rustic look and cut a cross about a half-inch deep across the top of the bread. This wards off evil and lets the fairies out. Or more practically helps the loaf to cook evenly without cracking.
Once your brown bread is cooked you can control how crusty you want your loaf. If you like a hard, crusty exterior that just let it cool down naturally on a wire rack. But if like me you like a soft crust then wrap the bread in a damp tea towel and let it cool.
For a cool list of variations and stuff you can add to your brown soda bread check this page out. Or if you want to learn more about the history of brown Irish soda bread and get a few different recipes check out the society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread.
Soda bread is quick and easy to make with lots of fiber and little fat. It’s delicious straight from the oven smeared with real butter, my favourite way to eat it. If you’ve never made it before than give it a go.