Every family in Ireland has its own recipe for soda bread, hand-written on flour-crusted note paper and wedged in among the cookery books and the coffee mugs. Some like it sweet with a spoonful of honey, sugar or dried fruits. Others prefer sprinkled-in seeds, bran and oats for a health boost, or treacle and Guinness for the opposite effect. However, the basic ingredients don’t change (bicarbonate of soda and buttermilk form the raising agent, which is mixed in with flour) and nor does the way it’s eaten: sliced and spread liberally with butter.
FUN FACTS AND FOLKLORE
1. Soda Bread’s Shape Reflects the Region You’re From
In Northern Ireland, people prefer the style of “farl,” while in Southern Ireland they prefer “cake.” Farl, which translates to “four-part,” is normally rolled out into a circle, cut into four pieces, and baked in a frying pan rather than in an oven. Cake, on the other hand, is the version most often replicated in the States (and also of our recipes). It’s the word used to describe soda bread that has been kneaded into a flat, round shape and baked in the oven.
2. Cutting a Cross on Top of Your Soda Bread Keeps the Devil Out
In the 19th century, it was believed that a cross slashed atop your bread let the devil out while the bread baked. It was also believed that the symbolism can be interpreted as blessing the bread and giving thanks. But there’s actually a practical reason behind the cruciform shape: These openings in the dough allow the bread to rise without splitting. Make sure your serrated knife is sharp; you want the knife to cut—not drag—through the dough.
3. Brown Soda Bread Is a Reflection of Your Social Status
Or it was during the 19th century. During this time in Europe, white bread was the preferred bread of the rich while the poor were left with brown bread. In fact, as Colman Andrews recounted in his cookbook The Country Cooking of Ireland, in some parts of Ireland, brown bread was so associated with poverty that schoolchildren who had it in their lunch used to eat it on the way to school to avoid the noontime taunting of their peers.
4. Save That Extra Foam the Bartender Pours You for Your Soda Bread
In the 1800s, barm—that foam that forms on top of liquor—was used to leaven soda bread. Baking soda, which is what’s used to leaven soda bread today, wasn’t yet known by Irish folks.
5. Traditional Irish Brown Soda Bread Is Made with Irish Wholemeal Flour
Irish wholemeal flours consist of entire wheat kernels that have been dried and ground to a powder. It’s softer than American wheat—but it’s also difficult to find in American supermarkets. The best substitute proved to be a combination of unbleached white flour and whole-wheat flour, plus some wheat germ for nuttiness. (Brown soda bread isn’t the only recipe where the type of flour you use can have a major effect on the final dish. That's why our cookbook Bread Illustrated includes detailed information on the seven basic flours every bread baker should have in their pantry.)
You don’t need to be Irish to enjoy this sweet and seedy bread.
Oil, for pan
3 c. whole-wheat flour
1 c. all-purpose flour
1/4 c. wheat germ
2 tbsp. sugar
2 tsp. baking soda
2 tsp. Kosher salt
4 tbsp. cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1/4 c. plus 1 Tbsp sunflower seeds
2 tbsp. plus 2 tsp flax seeds
2 1/4 c. buttermilk, plus more for brushing
1 tbsp. old-fashioned oats
Heat oven to 400°F. Lightly oil an 8-inch cast-iron skillet.
In a large bowl, whisk together flours, wheat germ, sugar, baking soda, and salt. Using your fingertips, rub butter cubes into flour mixture until small pebbles form. Stir in 1?4 cup sunflower seeds and 2 tablespoons flaxseeds.
Create well in center of flour mixture and add buttermilk, mixing with a wooden spoon in one direction, gradually incorporating flour to combine and make a slightly sticky dough.
Using slightly wet hands,form dough into ball and transfer to the prepared pan. Brush with buttermilk and top with oats and remaining 1 tablespoon sunflower seeds and 2 teaspoon flaxseeds.
Using a large serrated knife, cut a large cross, about 1 inch deep, into top of loaf (wiping blade with damp cloth between cuts). Bake until golden brown and internal temperature registers 195°F to 200°F, 45 to 55 minutes. Remove from skillet and let cool on a wire rack.