That such as thing exists as the Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread belies the fierce protection of an ancient food item; a culinary cultural relic passed down clan by clan, generation by generation, to arrive at its rightful place as a food centerpiece for that most esteemed and civilized of cultural ceremonies: St. Patrick’s Day. If you are inclined to take objection to that last bit—civilized? St. Patrick’s Day?—you can go ahead and continue objecting, since basically none of the above is accurate. Except that such a thing as the Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread does exist. (SPISB)
Whether you’ve had it or not, you’ve hopefully at least seen or heard of Irish Soda Bread, especially around St. Patrick’s Day, where it has become almost as ubiquitous as corned beef and cabbage or green beer, and is equally delicious served warm or room temperature. It is typically a large loaf in a round shape with a mottled, crusty exterior (like a biscuit or scone), and a criss-cross pattern cut into the top crust. Major ingredients typically include all-purpose flour, pastry flour, or soft wheat flour, sugar, butter, and buttermilk. Some Irish Soda breads will be adorned with currants or other dried fruit and caraway seeds. (Whether this qualifies as genius or adultery is a point of much passionate debate.)
Speaking of passion, Dara Coleman and Heather O’Neill, wholesale bakers of The Irish Loaf, continue the homegrown tradition of preparing Irish Soda Bread for reasons that seem more emotional than commercial. “(Soda bread is) a taste of home. An indescribable deliciousness. A comfort. A moment of peace and quiet.”
As for the aforementioned inaccuracies, Irish Soda Bread is neither ancient, nor—wait for it—Irish. Soda bread is a form of quick bread— that is, from dough that doesn’t utilize yeast as an ingredient and therefore doesn’t require rising or extensive kneading before baking—and has a relatively modern history by bread standards. The primary clue to that fact is right there in the name. The soda of soda bread refers to baking soda, also known as bicarbonate of soda, soda ash, or pearl ash, and can only be traced as far back as the late 1700s by use of Native Americans as a leavening agent to make flat breads. The first published reference to a soda bread worldwide is in an American cookbook: Amelia Simmons’s 1796 book, “American Cookery.” Not until the mid 1800s did baking soda become widely available for use in baking, and the earliest recipe found in Ireland for a soda bread is 1836.
However, according to the SPISB: “…the Irish have made soda bread theirs. Not by choice, but by a state of poverty…” Coleman and O’Neill concur: “(It) was a staple everyday food source for most families starting in the 19th century. The bread was traditionally baked on a griddle on open hearths. It was inexpensive but filling and quick to make.” Like many excellent foodstuffs of the world, poverty brings out ingenuity. Without needing to repurpose lesser cuts of meat and preserve goods for harsher months, for example, we’d have never arrived at bacon and sausage. (The horror!) Soda bread was a boon for hardship when time was money and milk was often sour. The chemical reaction that creates the air pockets that help the dough rise relies on the combination of the baking soda with an acidic ingredient. (Baking powder, by contrast, reacts only to heat.) Presently, this is achieved by use of buttermilk in most soda bread recipes, or a bit of lemon juice. Whereas other quick breads such as banana bread and cornbread maintain a soft exterior, soda bread is often baked in a cast iron skillet and retains a soft internal crumb but develops a hard crust. The criss-cross pattern could be for various reasons, say Coleman and O’Neill, “including to ward off the devil, as a blessing to the bread, or to let the fairies out. We think in truth it helps the bread bake properly.”
The addition of currants and caraway seeds seem entirely an American construct. Breads on offer by The Irish Loaf contain no such ingredients (though sometimes they will include wheat germ or golden flax seeds). When resources were already scarce, additional baking components purely for the luxury of flavor were not likely to make it in the dough. However, both plain and “brown” or whole wheat variants were common, as well as smaller griddled versions known as soda farls.
“The actual connection to the land of Ireland never leaves you and often there is an ache for home that all immigrants probably can attest to,” say Coleman and O’Neill. “When baking soda bread the smell itself brings you right back to home and helps ease that sense of longing.” For a delicious and comforting sense of the Emerald Isle in your own kitchen, here are a few recipes to try: