Soda bread is my go-to when ‘a wedge of ballast’, to quote Mark from Peep Show, is urgently required and time is of the essence. It can be prepared in an instant (20 minutes max) and needs no time to prove, as it doesn’t contain any yeast; so including baking time can be on the table within an hour of turning on the scales!
A number of countries count soda bread as a staple in their diets, including Serbia, Scotland and Poland; none as famously though, as Ireland.
Irish flour has a low gluten content and so is not well suited to making yeasted breads. Around the mid 1800s, bicarbonate of soda was introduced as a raising agent in Ireland. The fact that there was no long tradition of yeast cookery in rural communities, as there was already in other European countries, meant that baking with bicarbonate of soda caught on; its speed and ease of use were just an added bonus for Irish bakers.
Soda farls, baked on a griddle, and wheaten and soda breads are still very popular today in Ireland and around the world. Brown soda bread, like the one pictured above and below, is usually referred to as ‘wheaten bread’ in Ireland and is sometimes flavoured with sweet ingredients. The name ‘soda bread’ is reserved for the savoury variety which uses only white flour. However, despite it containing wholemeal flour, this bread has a savoury flavour and so I have called it ‘soda bread’. It also doesn’t contain buttermilk, an ingredient used in traditional Irish soda bread, as I didn’t have any in the fridge in my hour of need! So I am not claiming this is a strictly Irish recipe by any means!
The buttermilk in traditional soda and wheaten breads is used to activate the bicarbonate of soda, as it contains lactic acid. Some form of acid is needed to get the bicarbonate of soda releasing carbon dioxide, which is the gas that causes the bread to rise (think back to those school science experiments involving sodium bicarbonate and vinegar!) Since I had no buttermilk to hand, I needed to concoct a similar mixture which contained both fat, for a soft, moist crumb, and some acidity, to create the rise. All that I had in the fridge was a 300ml tub of double cream. I was slightly pensive about using vinegar on account of its harsh flavour, so I opted for lemon juice to bring acidity to the mix. This didn’t bring the volume up to what I needed, so I topped it up with water; I thought this would be fine, as buttermilk is more liquid than double cream, so I knew it would not affect the balance of moisture in the bread.
Anyway, enough of the preamble! Here’s my recipe for brown soda bread! It has a lighter than air crumb and crisp, crumbly crust. Delicious eaten warm, straight from the oven. I dipped mine in a steaming bowl of fresh tomato soup. Gorgeous!
- 300g Plain Wholemeal Flour
- 100g Plain Flour
- 1.5 Bicarbonate of Soda
- 0.5-1 tsp Salt (depending on personal taste)
- 300ml Double Cream
- 1 Lemon, thoroughly squeezed
- 25g Butter, melted
- Water to top up to 400ml (a little more maybe needed if the dough seems too tight)
- 25g Jumbo Oats
To make the bread;
- Preheat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius. Prepare one baking tray by flouring lightly.
- Melt the butter in a saucepan over a low heat and set aside to cool.
- Sieve the dry ingredients together into a large mixing bowl.
- In a measuring jug, measure the cream and add the lemon juice. Mix well with a fork.
- Add the cooled melted butter and use the fork to combine with the wet ingredients.
- Add water to the cream, lemon and butter mixture to bring it up to a volume of 400ml.
- Make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients and pour in the cream and lemon mixture.
- Mix well using one hand. You may need to add a little more water at this point to help the dough come together.
- Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead lightly for a minute or so, just to incorporate the ingredients. Do not over knead here!
- Form the dough into a smooth ball.
- Generously scatter the work surface with oats and roll the ball over them, pressing gently so the oats stick to the surface of the dough.
- Place the ball of dough onto the prepared baking sheet and dust lightly with flour. Make a deep cross in the dough using a sharp knife. The depth of my cuts were around half that of the ball (see picture above).
- Place in the centre of the oven and bake for 35-45 minutes.
- The bread is ready when it makes a hollow sound when tapped on the bottom.
As I mentioned above, by far the best way to enjoy soda bread is eaten warm, straight from the oven, with a generous slab of butter. This bread is so quick and easy to make, and if you do happen to have it in the fridge, you can substitute the cream, lemon and water mixture for 400ml of buttermilk. Although I found that the double cream made for a deliciously moist, soft crumb! Let me know how yours turns out!