Good soda bread is one of the great things to eat, especially warm with butter. It’s hard to find good soda bread in London. I have tried the occasional bakery example which has been OK but not great, and the commercial ones, while serviceable, are nothing like a home-made one. However, soda bread is phenomenally easy to make, and the preparation stage is really quick so if you keep the ingredients to hand, a good loaf of bread is never far away.
The Irish have been baking soda bread since the 19th century. The sort of wheat that grows in Ireland yields a flour with low gluten content which is not good for making yeast-based bread. However, it works just fine for soda bread. Traditional soda bread can be brown or white and should be made only with flour, salt, buttermilk and bicarbonate of soda (known in Ireland as bread soda). The bread needs little or no kneading and is cooked in a pot over an open fire. A cross is cut in the top of the loaf. Of course, variations abound, and fruited soda bread is common, as is the addition of other grains to the mixture. The particular one I make is fairly non-authentic, using a variety of grains and seeds. It is also a much sloppier dough which I bake in a loaf tin, so no open fires or crosses in the top either I’m afraid. It is delicious though, and fool-proof. It is great on its own with butter but I would also thoroughly recommend it as a base for smoked salmon and it makes a good sandwich. My children love it too which surprises lots of people, because it looks awfully healthy.
I used to bake soda bread regularly, but have fallen out of the habit recently. Over Christmas, having had served the commercially available stuff with salmon, I thought that it would be a good idea to make some. I bought the buttermilk and it sat in the fridge, making me feel guilty when I opened the door. You don’t need to buy buttermilk, there are many ways of making a substitute- milk and yoghurt works well (¼ milk to ¾ natural yoghurt). Also British buttermilk seems to be thicker than Irish, or at least the Sainsbury’s own brand one is, so I usually use 900ml buttermilk with 100ml milk, handy as the buttermilk is sold in 300ml pots.
So there was the buttermilk, lurking at the back of the fridge when I ran into a former colleague, a chap who lived in Ireland for many years and loves a good loaf of brown bread as it is known there. I told him that I had been thinking of making some and he asked if I’d make him some too. And how could I refuse? So after the children had gone to bed, I got out the ingredients. It turned out that we had no brown flour, only rye flour that had been masquerading as brown flour, thereby lulling me into a false sense of flour security. That was rectified by my lovely husband popping out to get some. The coarser the flour the better I always think. High gluten flour gives a breadier, less cakey texture which I think is less authentic.
The recipe for this came from a wonderful woman I know in Dublin but I am not sure where it came from originally. She bakes this regularly and it’s always on the breakfast and lunch table when we go to their house. The following is the recipe she gave me, but it doesn’t need to be stuck to exactly. You could add more exotic seeds if you wanted but that would definitely move it away from being a (nearly) traditional soda bread. Of course you don’t have to stick to the exact quantities or even varieties of grains and seeds, just make sure the overall weight is the same.
Recipe for 2 loaves of brown soda bread.
(It’s easy to halve the recipe but it freezes pretty well so if you have a litre of buttermilk, make 2. If you preslice and put small squares of greaseproof paper between the slices you can take them straight out of the freezer and toast them)
Turn on the oven at 200C. Line the bottom of 2 loaf tins with greaseproof paper and grease paper and sides.
20oz coarse brown flour
4oz porridge oats
4 oz oatbran
4oz pinhead oats
1oz soft brown sugar (I use a bit less, about 0.75oz)
2oz butter, melted
2 tsp salt (I use a bit less, about 1.5tsp)
4tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 litre of buttermilk or equivalent
Mix the dry ingredients, add the wet ingredients. Don’t overmix, just make sure everything is combined. Pour into loaf tin. Bake for between 45 and 60 minutes. Test it with a skewer, which should come out dry. Turn it out of the loaf tin into a clean tea towel and wrap it up. This stops the crust from getting too hard. Eat as soon as possible.