Two main factors have long affected Irish baking. The first is the climate. In this land where the influence of the Gulf Stream prevents either great extremes of heat in the summer or cold in the winter, the hard wheats, which need such extremes to grow, don't prosper. And it's such wheats which make flour with a high gluten content, producing bread which rises high and responds well to being leavened with yeast. Soft wheats, though, have always grown well enough here.
The other factor, in the last millenium at least, has been the relative plenty of fuel. The various medieval overlords of Ireland were never able to exercise the tight control over forest land which landowners could manage in more populous, less wild areas, like England and mainland Europe: so firewood could be pretty freely "poached", and where there was no wood, there was almost always heather, and usually turf as well. As a result, anyone with a hearthstone could afford to bake on a small scale, and on demand. The incentive to band together to conserve fuel (and invent the communal bake-oven, a conservation tool common in more fuel-poor areas of Europe) was missing in the Irish countryside. Short elapsed baking times, and baking "at will", were easy.
These two factors caused the Irish householder to bypass yeast for everyday baking, whenever possible. The primary leavening agent became what is now known here as "bread soda" -- also known as sodium bicarbonate, bicarbonate of soda, "bicarbs", or baking soda. Hence the name "soda bread". Between the mid-1800's (when bicarbonate of soda was introduced) and the early 1900's (when stoves / cookers with ovens began to spread into average households), most of the bread in Ireland was soda bread -- at least, most of the bread baked at the hearthside: "bakery bread" was only available in the larger cities until the early part of the last century. Soda bread was made either "in the pot" in the fire or the oven, in yet another version of the "cloche" baking which is now coming back into vogue, but which was long popular all over medieval Europe: or else on a "bakestone", an iron plate usually rested directly in/on the embers of a fire. From these two methods are descended the two main kinds of soda bread eaten in Ireland, both north and south, to the present day.
In Ireland, "plain" soda bread is as likely to be eaten as an accompaniment to a main meal (to soak up the gravy) as it's likely to appear at breakfast. (Though even this statement probably varies regionally: down in the country, perhaps, soda bread probably appears more often with main meals than it would "in town" -- and even then, probably more frequently with the more traditional main meals, such as chicken-and-bacon joint-in-a-pot. The modern Irish diet has been as thoroughly affected by fast food and convenience foods as any other mainstream European diet, to the relative detriment of traditional dishes and traditional cookery, but that's probably a subject for another writeup.)
Soda bread comes in two main colors, brown and white, and two main types: "cake" and "farl". The latter are primarily regional differences. People in the south of Ireland tend to make more cake: people up North seem to like farl better (though both kinds appear in both North and South, sometimes under wildly differing names). "Cake" is soda bread kneaded and shaped into a flattish round, then cut with a cross on the top (to let the bread stretch and expand as it rises in the oven) and baked on a baking sheet. Farl is rolled out into a rough circle and cut through, crosswise, into four pieces (the "farls": farl is now a generic term for any triangular piece of baking, derived from an older word for "quarter") and usually baked in a heavy frying pan or on a griddle, on top of the range rather than in the oven. You may hear either of these breads referred to locally as "brown cake", "soda cake", "soda farl", "brown farl", "wheaten bread", and any combination of numerous other weird terms. (You learn pretty quickly, when you go to the baker's, to just point and say, "Please, give me one of those.") -- A quick note here, as well: while traveling around my old haunts in the USA, I've noticed that nine times out of ten, when people there make soda bread, they tend to sweeten it and/or put fruit in it. This is not the normal approach in Ireland. Irish cooks do put raisins, currants and so forth in soda bread, but almost always as a "tea bread", not in the "plain soda" which is the stuff of everyday consumption.
With all this said, the basic bread is extremely simple. The urge to be resisted is to do more stuff to it than necessary...this is usually what keeps it from coming out right the first few times. Once you've mastered the basic mixture, though, you can start adding things, coming up with wonderful variations like treacle bread and so on.
Here's a basic recipe for white soda bread. All these measures are approximate: your flour's volume and liquid-absorptive capabilities, in particular, will vary depending on the local humidity. (Please note: teaspoons equal approximately 5 milliliters; tablespoons equal approximately 15 milliliters.)
- 450 g / 1 lb / 3 1/2 cups flour (either cake flour or all-purpose: but cake flour works better)
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
- Between 200-300 ml / 8-10 fluid ounces sour milk, buttermilk, or plain ("sweet") milk, to mix
Buttermilk is usually the preferred mixing liquid: its acidity helps activate the bicarb, releasing the CO2 which makes the bread rise.
("Sour milk" isn't milk that's gone bad. It's milk which has had a couple of teaspoons of buttermilk stirred into it, has been put in a scalded container and wrapped in a towel, and left in some peaceful corner at about 75 degrees Fahrenheit for 24 hours. The original Irish name is bainne clabhair, "clabbered milk", or "bonnyclabber" as the Scots have anglicized it. The flavor isn't quite as tart as buttermilk, but there's enough acid to make the bicarb react correctly. If you don't have time to do sour milk, buttermilk will do perfectly well. "Sweet" or plain milk doesn't work quite as well, but you can still use it: just add 1/2 teaspoon of baking powder to the recipe.)
First, decide whether you're making farl or cake. If farl, find your heaviest griddle or non-sloping-sided frying pan (cast iron is best), and put it on to preheat at a low-medium heat. (You're going to have to experiment with settings. Farl should take about 20 minutes per side to get a slight toasty brown.) If making cake, preheat the oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit / 225 degrees Centigrade and find a baking sheet. Full preheating is vital for soda bread.
Sift the dry ingredients together several times to make sure the bicarb is evenly distributed. Put the sifted dry ingredients in a good big bowl (you want stirring room) and make a well in the center. Pour about three-quarters of the buttermilk or sour milk or whatever in, and start stirring. You are trying to achieve a dough that is raggy and very soft, but the lumps and rags of it should look dryish and "floury", while still being extremely squishy if you poke them. Add more liquid sparingly if you think you need it. (You may need more or less according to conditions: local humidity and temperature, the absorptiveness of the flour you're using, etc.)
Blend quickly (but not too energetically!) until the whole mass of dough has become this raggy consistency. Then turn the contents of the bowl out immediately onto a lightly floured board or work surface, and start to knead.
The chief concern here is speed: the chemical reaction of the bicarb with the buttermilk started as soon as they met, and you want to get the bread into the oven while the reaction is still running on "high". Don't overknead. You do not want the traditional "smooth, elastic" ball of dough you would expect with a yeast bread; you simply want one that contains almost everything that went into the bowl, in one mostly cohesive lump. You should not spend more than half a minute or so kneading...the less time, the better. You don't want to develop the gluten in the flour at all. If you do, you'll get a tough loaf that will refuse to rise, and will come out like a brick. Don't be concerned if the dough is somewhat sticky: flour your hands, and the dough, and keep going as quickly as you can. There is a whole spectrum of "wetness" for soda bread dough in which it's possible to produce prefectly good results: I've found that farl in particular sometimes rises better if the dough is initially wet enough to be actively sticky. You're likely to have to experiment a few times, as I said, to come to recognize the right texture of dough.
Once you're done kneading, shape the bread. For cake, flatten the lump of dough to a slightly domed circle or flat hemisphere about 6-8 inches in diameter, and put it on the baking sheet (which should be dusted lightly with flour first). Then use a very sharp knife to cut a cross right across the circle: the cuts should go about halfway down through the sides of the circle of dough, so that the loaf will "flower" properly. If you're making farl, use the same very sharp knife to cut the circle of dough into four wedges. Try not to crush or compress the dough where you cut it (if the knife is sharp enough, you won't). A clean slicing motion is what's called for.
Then bake. When putting cake in the oven, handle it lightly and don't jar it: the CO2 bubbles are vulnerable at this point in the process. Let the bread alone, and don't peek at it. It should bake for 45 minutes at 400-450 degrees Fahrenheit / 200-225 degrees Centigrade. (One local source of mine suggests you give it the first 10 minutes at the higher temperature, then decrease to the lower one. This has worked for me too.)
...If making farl, dust the hot griddle or frying pan with a very little flour, and put the farls on/in gently. The cut edges should be 1/2 inch or so apart to allow for expansion. Give the farls 20 minutes on a side: they should be a sort of mocha-toasty color before you turn them. Keep an eye on the heat -- they scorch easily. The heat should be quite "slow". When finished, take the farls off the heat and wrap them in a light dishtowel, hot side down. (The residual steam works its way up through the soda bread and softens the crust formed by the process of baking on the griddle, making it more amenable to being split and toasted later.)
If you're making cake: At the end of 45 minutes, pick up the loaf and tap the bottom. A hollow-ish sound means it's done. For a very crunchy crust, put on a rack to cool. For a softer crust, as above, wrap the cake in a clean dishcloth as soon as it comes out of the oven.
Both ways, the soda bread is wonderful sliced or split and served hot, with sweet butter and/or the jam or jelly of your choice.
Soda farl is also one of the most important ingredients of the Ulster Fry, the world's most dangerous breakfast (nothing whatsoever to do with its area of origin: it's the cholesterol....). Fried eggs, fried Irish bacon, fried soda farl, fried potato farl (a 1/4-inch thick potato bread, also cooked on a griddle), fried black pudding, fried sausages, fried tomatoes, fried mushrooms...you get the picture. Not to be eaten every morning, and not for those closely watching their fat intake...but wonderful every now and then.
Some people have begun resurrecting the art of baking soda bread "in the pot", on the hearth, as was done in this country for many years before the average householder could afford a luxury like an oven. The traditional vessel is a kind of Dutch oven which has come to be known on this side of the water as the "Bastable oven". This is an iron pot about 18-20 inches in diameter, with a concave lid. The bread (treated as for "cake") would be put in the preheated pot: the pot would be covered and put down into the coals of the fire, and more coals piled on top. This approach produces a soda bread which rises wonderfully and bakes with great evenness. The smell of the bread, suddenly released on opening the pot, is ravishing.
Variations on the basic theme:
To the basic recipe, add a cup of raisins, and maybe another teaspoon of sugar. Bake as cake.
- 1 1/2 lb / 700 grams flour
- 4 oz / 115 grams currants
- 4 oz / 115 grams raisins<.li>
- 2 oz / 60 grams mixed candied peel
- 3 oz / 85 grams butter
- 1 teaspoon bicarb
- 1 teaspoon cream of tartar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- buttermilk to mix (judge it by eye, as above).
Sift the dry ingredients together; rub in the butter; add the fruit. Add the buttermilk, roll out very lightly, cut into farls, and bake as for farl above.
"Golden soda": substitute about 1 cup / 180 grams of fine-ground cornmeal/maizemeal for a cup of the flour. One of my sources tells me this works better as cake than as farl.
A really heretical variation: Add chopped Jalapeno peppers to the dry ingredients of the basic recipe. Mix and bake as above. (My mother-in-law will probably whack me one if she ever catches me doing this. But it does taste wonderful.)
For "Brown soda" / "wheaten bread":
- 4 cups / 360 grams whole wheat flour
- 1 cup / 90 grams white flour
- Scant 1/2 cup / 80 grams oatmeal
- 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 8-12 fluid ounces / 230-350 milliliters sour milk or buttermilk
Mix and bake exactly as for "plain soda" above. If you have trouble with this one rising, your local mixture of whole wheat flour may be responsible: try decreasing the amount of whole wheat and increasing the white flour.
- 2 tablespoons dark molasses
- 7 fluid ounces / 210 milliliters milk (approximately)
- 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
- 1 lb / 450 grams flour
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon cream of tartar
- 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
- Good pinch of ground ginger
Heat the molasses and milk together. Mix all dry ingredients together: add liquid until a soft dough is achieved. With floured hands, shape into a round cake about 1 1/2 inches thick. Cut into farls, put on a floured baking sheet and bake at 400F / 200C for 40 minutes.
Much of this information comes from fifteen years of experimentation, and many discussions of technique with my neighbors in Ireland. The basic recipe comes from my Belfast-born mother-in-law.