Soda Bread

While many soda breads are made with soft brown wholemeal flour, a white loaf is a sparkling and handsome addition to the tea table.

This sort of bread was once universal in Ireland, its especial attraction perhaps being that it was economical on fuel and capable of being cooked in an open hearth rather than demanding an elaborate baker’s oven and, like other traditional Irish breads, it did not use yeast but bicarbonate of soda and cream of tartar as raising agents. The normal method of baking was in a covered pot in the embers of the fire. The cook would increase the all-round heat by heaping coals on the lid. My suggestion of a ‘bonnet’ in the oven recreates this arrangement.

If you prefer to make this bread with brown wholemeal flour - perhaps more authentic - it would be best to find a stoneground flour, ideally as fresh as possible from your nearest watermill or windmill, and to use the softest (weakest) flour they have available, as well as the coarsest grind. You may need more liquid in the recipe.

Buttermilk has become quite difficult to find. It is possible to substitute milk and water with some cream of tartar, or you can use plain live yoghurt.

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Ingredients

  • 225 g/8 oz unbleached white plain flour
  • ¼ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
  • ¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 15 g/½ oz butter
  • 15 g/½ oz white sugar
  • 150 ml/5 fl oz buttermilk, or half milk, half water plus ¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 1 small egg

Method

  1. Sift the flour, bicarbonate of soda, cream of tartar and salt together into a bowl. Rub in the butter and sugar. Mix the buttermilk, or milk and water, with the egg and add to the flour. Mix lightly, then turn on to a floured work surface. It will be quite moist.
  2. With clean and floured hands, bring this softly into an approximate round. It will never be smooth and neat as it is best if you do not work the flour too much. If you make a firm dough, which you knead, all you do is excite the gluten in the flour, making the dough tough and heavy. Heat the oven to 180°C/350°F/gas4.
  3. Mark a cross with a knife from one side to the other and place the loaf on a greased baking sheet. Cover this with a ‘bonnet’ - a tin or saucepan that is larger than the loaf which will equalize the heat in the oven and give maximum lightness while not browning the crust too much. Bake for 30 minutes, then remove the tin or saucepan and bake the loaf for another 15 minutes, until lightly browned.
  4. Soda bread is best eaten warm and fresh. When cooling it on a rack after baking, wrap it in a clean tea towel to keep the crust soft.