‘Round the 17th of March, bakeries here in New York City explode with soft crumbly loaves of Irish Soda Bread. Varieties can be brown or white, and flavored with caraway or raisins. All are delicious. But what is not widely known is Irish Soda Bread’s true ethnicity. You see, the technique of leavening bread using the baking soda, or Bicarbonate of Soda, was invented by the Native Americans. They used potash, derived from wood ashes, to griddle a bread known as Johnny Cake or Hoe Cake, named for the tool which could be held over a fire in a pinch to bake them.
Made out of corn meal instead of wheat, these breads could not be made with yeast. Since corn was easy to grow and plentiful (along with squash and beans it was one of the “three sisters”) and was adopted by Colonial Americans as a cheap and simple treat.
Prior to 1750, wheat in Ireland was extremely expensive. The climate made barley and other cereal grains grow far more easily. As such, most Irish consumed oat porridge or dense barley bread as their carbohydrate. All that changed in the 18th century. The enclosure movement swept throughout Europe, ending the practice of inefficient “common grazing lands”. Other agricultural techniques were also introduced, most importantly the Flanders four-field crop rotation, which used plants such as clover to restore the nitrogen in soil.
All of this made wheat easy to grow and cheap to buy. There was only one problem: the wheat which grew best in Ireland was soft winter wheat, a variety which has a protein percentage of only around 8-10%. In contrast, artisan breads from the continent are often made with high-gluten flours with up to 14% protein.This gives them a chewy texture and crispy crust in contrast to the soft crumbly texture of soda bread. The Irish wheat was not strong enough to be leavened by yeast.
When baking soda was introduced to Ireland in the early 1840’s, Irish Soda Bread became instantly popular for several reasons. First, it solved the problem of Ireland’s soft wheat. Second of all, it was convenient. Soda bread can be made in a moment’s notice, requiring no time to rise like a yeasted bread. It also can be made without an oven, by being placed in a cast iron pot nestled in the coals of a fire. Lastly, it was a frugal bread: baking soda requires an acid in order to be activated. Leftover soured milk or buttermilk works perfectly.
When Irish immigrants came to the States, they enriched the bread with the excesses of the New World: the traditionally whole wheat “brown bread” was made with white flour. Caraway seeds, raisins, currants, and butter were added as well, giving us the modern-day bread we associate with St, Patrick’s day.
Though soda bread has its roots in America, the Irish, because of economic and social factors, made it their own. No matter its origins, soda bread is a delicious and easy bread enjoyed by all.
Soda bread is best made using cake flour: the low-protein content imitates Irish soft wheat. I like America’s Test Kitchen’s recipe best.
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup cake flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons cream of tartar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 1/2 cups low-fat buttermilk
1 tablespoon melted butter, optional
1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees and adjust a rack to the center position. Place the flours, soda, cream of tartar, salt and sugar in a large mixing bowl. Add the butter and rub it into the flour using your fingers until it is completely incorporated and the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Make a well in the center and add the buttermilk. Work the liquid into the flour mixture using a fork until the dough comes together in large clumps. Turn the dough onto a work surface and knead briefly until the loose flour is just moistened. The dough will still be scrappy and uneven.
2. Form the dough into a round about 6 to 7 inches in diameter and place in a cast iron skillet. Score a deep cross on top of the loaf and place in the heated oven. Bake until nicely browned and a tested comes out clean when inserted into the center of the loaf, about 40 to 45 minutes. Remove from oven and brush with a tablespoon of melted butter if desired. Cool for at least 30 minutes before slicing. Serve slightly warm or at room temperature.