Soda breads come under the heading of “quick breads” meaning no yeast and all that waiting time for the bread to rise. Instead baking soda is used as a leavening agent. This began in the 1840’s when bicarbonate of soda first started to be implemented in baking.
Soda bread is the perfect match for Ireland because yeast reacts badly with the “soft” wheat flour that is native to the Emerald Isle. But it works perfectly for quick breads. Buttermilk is the acidic agent needed to activate the soda. Kneading it will make it tough by developing the gluten so handle with care.
Over the years, Irish Americans and non-Irish chefs have embellished this bread with a variety of seeds, nuts, raisins, currants, and even orange zest. But the original quick breads of Ireland sometimes known as wheaten breads were really quite simple.
Traditional Irish bread did not contain eggs, sugar, butter, fruit and nuts. These were luxury items and not attainable by most households. Dried fruit might be added during Christmas as a special treat and Donegal actually has a tradition of adding seeds to their bread. But orange zest would be hard to come by. I doubt very much that Mrs. O’Leary had a zester that she picked up at a William Sonoma in Dublin. And Mrs. Flanagan has never even seen an orange never mind zesting it into her quick bread which she is cooking in a skillet over a turf fire in the 1850’s.
But there is one thing I am sure those superstitious Irish housewives did. They made a cross on the top of the bread before baking it. Some say this is done to “let the devil out” some say to “let the fairies out”. Others say it blesses the bread, and in a Catholic country this seems likely. A cruciform scored on top of the bread also makes it easy to break apart and share, reflecting the religious act of breaking bread during mass. But for the practical people, a cross assists in cooking deep into the center of the bread.
I don’t know if my Irish ancestors made soda bread. I don’t own any yellowed hand-written recipe passed from a great-great-grandmother. I try to stay somewhat traditional but I do want it to taste good. I just leave out the orange zest and make sure the fairies are released.
Claude prepares to bake
Combine flower, sugar, soda and salt
Dice butter and beat egg
Beat butter and egg into flour
Add currants and mix
Shape into a circle and make an X
Let cool slightly before cutting
Irish Soda Bread
4 cups flour
4 Tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. baking soda
1 ½ tsp. salt
4 Tbsp. unsalted butter diced
1 ¾ cups cold buttermilk
1 cup dried currants
Preheat oven to 375 degrees
Place the flour, sugar, soda, salt, in bowl of electric mixer. Add the butter and mix on low using the paddle attachment.
Add in the egg
With mixer on low speed, slowly add the buttermilk.
Toss the currants with a little flour and add them to the batter.
Scrape out the very wet batter onto a floured board. No need to knead! Shape into a circle and place on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper. Use a serrated knife to cut an X into the top to let out the fairies.
Bake 50-55 minutes or ‘til a tester comes out clean.
Best served warm with lots of butter!