Irish Soda Bread

Preparation info

  • Difficulty

    Easy

  • Dough Yield:

    10

    loaves at 2.25 lb each

Appears in

Bread

By Jeffrey Hamelman

Published 2004

  • About

Years Ago i Lived in Ireland, and for several months worked at a bakery in Dublin. One of the things we made each day was Irish soda bread. Each morning, shortly after four o’clock, a van would pull up, and out would come a groggy and cranky delivery boy, wheeling fresh buttermilk into the bakery in steel milk cans that were about as tall as he was. The delivery boy was dark and gloomy; this only intensified the silvery brightness of the shining milk cans. By then, another baker and myself would have mixed the ingredients for the baking powder, and it would be in a long wooden mixing trough along with the rest of the dry ingredients. We would then hoist up one of the canisters of buttermilk and pour it into the trough. Then we would each stand at one end of the trough and begin mixing—not just with our hands; these were large batches, and we’d literally be up to our elbows. The boss was emphatic about how gently the bread had to be handled, and once scaled, we had to shape it with the lightest touch possible. Then it was right to the oven, and a good hot one it was. Once baked, the loaf had a pungent aroma of fragrant wheat meal and tangy buttermilk, full of flavor and fat from those green-pastured cows.

I’ve made Irish soda bread pretty much every year since returning to the United States, always around St. Patrick’s Day. And admittedly it isn’t quite the same. True buttermilk is virtually unobtainable here, and what we see most commonly is free of fat and stuffed with stabilizers and gums. Substituting about 20 percent sour cream or yogurt for an equal weight of buttermilk will add body to the bread—just whisk the sour cream or yogurt into the buttermilk until the liquid is smooth. Irish whole-meal flour is only rarely found (although that is changing now and it is becoming more available; if you are able to obtain it, substitute it for the combination of whole-wheat flour and whole-wheat flakes). Fortunately, we can simulate Irish flour by processing wheat flakes in a food processor and adding them to the dough along with the whole-wheat flour. Whole-wheat pastry flour can be used in lieu of whole-wheat bread flour in the interest of tender results. In a way, I’m glad we can’t quite duplicate the bread here; like the Guinness, it’s somehow right that soda bread can’t simply cross the ocean and still be as good as it is in Ireland herself.

U.S. Metric Home Baker’s %
Whole-Wheat Pastry Flour 5.63 lb 2.5 kg 5.3 oz ( cups) 50%
Wheat Flakes, Ground 2.82 lb 1.26 kg 2.6 oz ( cup) 25%
White Pastry Flour 2.81 lb 1.25 kg 2.6 oz ( cup) 25%
Milk Powder .47 lb .21 kg .4 oz (1 T + 1 tsp) 4.2 %
Sugar .09 lb .04 kg .1 oz (½ tsp) .8%
Salt .17 lb .08 kg .15 oz (¾ tsp) 1.5 %
Baking Soda .28 lb .13 kg .12 oz ( tsp) 2.5 %
Baking Powder .09 lb .04 kg .04 oz (½ tsp) .8%
Buttermilk 10.14 lb 4.50 kg 9.25 oz (1 cup + 2 T) 90%
Total Yield 22.51 lb 10 kg 1 lb, 4.6 oz 199.8 %

Method

  1. Mixing: Before making the actual mix, process the wheat flakes in a food processor until they are broken down. Don’t turn them into powder, though—they should still have a coarse texture. If you live in Ireland, mix the dough by hand if using less than 5 Imperial gallons of buttermilk. In North America, hand mixing is still preferred for its gentleness, but using any kind of mixer is acceptable as long as it is used minimally, and only on first speed. In either case, place all the dry ingredients in the mixing bowl and whisk them around for a few seconds so they are somewhat dispersed. Then pour over the buttermilk. Mix swiftly but lightly, just until the dough comes together. It should be quite moist, but not runny. Add more buttermilk if necessary and mix lightly to incorporate.
  2. Dividing and Shaping: Flour the work surface, turn out the dough, and sprinkle a light dusting of pastry flour over the top of the dough to facilitate dividing. Divide the dough into 2.25-pound portions (the Home recipe yields 1 loaf weighing 1 pound, 6 ounces). To shape, cup both hands at the base of the dough and, with swift strokes, rotate the dough as you rapidly bring your hands (palms up) together and then apart, always at the base of the dough. This will bring the dough into a round cohesion while remaining gentle and not toughening it. Don’t expect the kind of structure sought in a loaf of white yeasted dough; simply bring the soda bread to roundness, tightening it only enough to eliminate any large air pockets inside the dough. Flatten the rounded piece of dough slightly, flour the surface thoroughly but not thickly with pastry flour, and then transfer it to a sheet pan lined with parchment paper. Check that the dough is still round, and flour the top again if need be. Now, use a plastic or metal dough cutter and divide the dough into 4 equal sections, north, south, east, and west. Don’t cut right through to the bottom, but do go down about 80 percent of the way.
  3. Baking: Place the soda bread in a 475°F oven for 15 minutes, then lower the oven temperature to 450°F and bake for an additional 20 minutes or so (the Home loaf, being lighter, will need only about another 15 minutes baking time). It should brown nicely and have somewhat of a thin crust on top and bottom, but some “give” when the loaf is pressed in its very center. If the cut parts are quite pale, it is an indication that the bread is not done yet. Irish soda bread is best eaten the day it is made. It does toast well, however, and is particularly good, toasted or not, with butter or marmalade. A pot of strong tea helps the soda bread to keep on going down, and the soda bread helps keep the tea flowing.