Soda bread evolved after the introduction of baking soda in the 1800's. The use of a leavening agent that isn't as temperature sensitive as yeast eliminated the need for ovens to cook bread, allowing for nearly every household to have the means to make bread. Instead, soda bread was cooked in cast iron dutch ovens, called bastibles, placed directly over hot coals.
Traditional Irish soda bread does not include what we in America have come to expect - the currants, raisins, nuts, and peel that we find in any number of store bought soda breads. Brown soda bread, made with wholemeal, was and still is the every day table bread in Ireland. Most meals are served with a loaf and plenty of butter to slather over it. On special occasions and holidays, the soda bread is made with the more expensive and refined white flour.
Slashing a cross into the bread, or "letting the devil out of the bread," helps the dense middle section of the loaf to cook. In a Catholic country such as Ireland, the people obviously drew the connection with the cruciform shape and the act of blessing the bread, further encouraging the recognizable marking on the loaves.
The recipe I used is based on that of Darina Allen, a goddess of traditional Irish cooking. Her cookbook, Forgotten Skills of Cooking, is a fantastic handbook to traditional methods and recipes.
- 1 lb white flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 3/4 cup buttermilk
Preheat the oven to 450 F.
Sift the dry ingredients together into a large bowl. Create a well in the middle, and pour in 3/4 of the buttermilk. Mix the flour into the buttermilk from the edge of the bowl inward, using one hand to mix and the other to turn the bowl. Add just enough buttermilk for the dough to come together. Form into a round and place on a greased baking sheet or in a greased dutch oven. Slice a deep cross into the top of the loaf, being sure to go over the sides. Cover, if cooking in a dutch oven. Bake for 15 minutes, then turn the oven down to 400 F and bake for an additional 30 minute. To check if your soda bread is done, turn it over and rap your knuckles on the bottom. You should hear a hollow sound.
Serve with plenty of butter!