Soda bread is traditionally made in Scotland and Ireland. It’s an unfermented bread that’s leavened with bicarbonate of soda (baking soda) instead of the traditional yeast. It originated from the farl-and-bannock type of quick breads and it was baked on a griddle just like other griddle cakes and quick breads. Soda bread used to be shaped into a flat disc and quartered into farls, but today it is usually baked into loaves.
Eliza Acton explains in her magnificent 1857 book, The English Bread Book, how the knowledge of unfermented bread and any other easy method for bread-making was invaluable to people living in remote northern areas, and remarks how the islanders of the Scottish Isle of Skye depended on supplies brought in from Glasgow by steamer boats, often leaving them without when adverse weather prevented the boats from going out to sea. Buttermilk and bicarbonate of soda are things they would have had in their pantries to make soda breads, scones and bannocks, which, lacking ovens in their cottages, they would bake on griddles. Acton also suggests that adding a very small amount of sugar improves the bread, and indeed a teaspoonful of dark brown sugar does soften the flavour of the bicarbonate of soda.
The bread should be eaten as fresh out of the oven as possible, as it becomes rather heavy after it’s been left for a while.
Mix the flours, bicarbonate of soda, brown sugar and salt well in a bowl. Rub in the butter, then create a well in the mixture.
Pour the buttermilk or yoghurt and milk into the well and stir into the dry ingredients using a wooden spoon. (Once the buttermilk or yoghurt is added, it begins to react with the bicarbonate of soda so from then on you need to work swiftly and get the bread into the oven as quickly as possible or it will become heavy.) When the liquid is incorporated, tip the dough out onto a well-floured work surface. Shape it into a ball with your hands and flatten it slightly.
Transfer the dough to the baking tray or tin, generously dust the top with flour or oat flour and score a deep cross in the top with a knife, all the way down but not cutting all the way through.
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