There are many recipes available for Irish brown soda bread. Most of them deviate from their Irish countryside origin and add unnecessary complexity to a straightforward bread. When you pare all the meaningful ingredients to the core, there are not that many ingredients.
So when one wants to try to honor an old recipe, it pays to try to gather up the right ingredients. And to do that, you need to understand the basic nature of flour.
Basically, there are two types of flour, hard flour and soft flour. Basically, hard flour has a higher protein (read gluten) content than soft flour. Hard flour is what you would use to make a bread where yeast is the leavening agent. The yeast is what will make the bread rise. And you have to knead it and let it proof.
Well, we don’t knead to get into that. We are going to make a quick bread. And to do that, we need soft flour, just like they use in Ireland. You will see Odlum’s in every Irish kitchen. And we will use baking soda as our leavening agent. The baking soda will help the bread rise. No kneading or proofing necessary.
For my recipe you will need: 12 ounces whole wheat flour; 4 ounces all-purpose flour; 1 teaspoon sea salt; 1 teaspoon baking soda and 14 ounces or 1 and 3/4 cup of buttermilk. Easy. Five ingredients.
A word on the ingredients: Don’t sweat it if you can’t find Irish flour in your area. Go with what you got. I live in New England and I use King Arthur brand all the time. The bread end results are a little different. But you experiment.
You can buy milk and let it go sour. Or you can make your own. It’s easy, takes 15 minutes. Or you can do what I did. Can’t go wrong with real buttermilk from Maine.
I used fine sea salt. If I have no sea-salt, I use coarse Kosher salt. For the baking soda, I just used a regular store brand. Now is a good time to pre-heat your oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Or 225 degrees Celsius.
This is the equipment that I use. There are 5 items in the photo. I use a large stainless steel mixing bowl. I also use a digital weighing scales. I like accuracy when I bake. So I weigh and measure. I use a liquid cup measure. A dry cup measure is different. When I measure the salt and baking soda with the measuring spoon, it is a level measure.For the baking soda, I tamp it down against the container to level it. I use the flexible spatula so I don’t get my hands dirty. I work clean. I use the tea strainer to sift the baking soda only. Sometimes it can be lumpy. You want to be able to disperse that leavening agent all around.
Measure and weigh out your dry ingredients and incorporate them well. You can do this with your spatula or you can toss the flour within the bowl by giving it the chef’s wrist-flick. Whatever you do, just mix it well and then, make a well in the flour like what I have done.You can see the bottom of the bowl. All easy so far.
Remember, oven on at 450 degrees.
For all of my baking, I use a pizza stone. It lives in the oven and never sees daylight. A hot stone will give a better crust to any home bread baking designs you might have.
This is a staging area for the bread once it is mixed and oven-ready. Having this ready in advance streamlines the process for me of mixing the bread and then actually getting it into the oven. I have no bread paddle. This is what I do.
The knife is to cut to and slash the bread. It is a 10 inch blade. More on that later. I have floured my parchment paper which rests on a wooden cutting board. I lift the board up, open up the oven door, slide the parchment paper with the bread into the oven and onto the pizza stone. That’s whats coming up. Sounds easy enough until you have to do it. You have to drag the parchment paper onto the stone. Trying to shake it on won’t work.
Here’s what happens next. I referenced earlier that soda bread was a quick bread. That’s no exaggeration. Now we become a fast bread. In a moment or two, you will understand all the efficiency. Remember the movie “Speed” where if the bus slowed down under 50 miles an hour, it would explode. Okay, same idea here with this particular bread baking exercise. I have 3 minutes to get the bread into the oven or it will explode all over my kitchen. All of a sudden, quick bread takes on a new meaning.
Here is why you need to move fast to get the bread into the oven. There is a chemical reaction that takes place when baking soda meets buttermilk. Things start to go snap, crackle, pop. This equation will run it’s course sooner rather than later and your bread won’t rise. It will kind of fizz out and that will be it and you will never again try bread making. While I’m bumbling away at typing the clock is running down.
Okay, so I pour half of the milk into the well and begin stirring with the spatula. I still hav’nt gotten my hands dirty. And I slowly or deliberately add the remainder.
Tick, tick, tick.
And you get something that looks like this. I have barely brought it together. You can see that in spots it looks wetter than others. That’s okay. Just try to resist the urge to handle or knead this. My hands are still clean.
At this point, you will need to flour the bread and bowl to enable extraction. It will stick to your mixing bowl. It will not co-operate. It will not yield easily. The zen part is being able to flour your bread so much only that it comes away from the edges of the bowl and just rolls out onto the floured parchment paper surface without you even touching it. Hands still clean. Tick, tick, tick.
Okay, I’m ready to transfer the bread to the next staging section. When you turn your dough out, you will want to show a smooth surface as opposed to that jagged area you see in the photo. The bread dough is so wet to a degree that it is absorbing the added flour at a quick rate. Another reason to move fast.
And…….alley-oop……..onto the parchment paper, pat it down, smoothen the edges, you have to hurry now……..tick, tick, tick………..grab that big pointy knife.
Put your dirty mixing bowl in the sink and start running cold water in it. Get your blade nice and wet. Cut the bread in four sections. Use the lenght of the knife to do this action smootly. Just slide the bread sections away from each other. This is where the floured surface helps. Use that same blade and you may have to wet it a few times as you go. But make a slash in each section. C’mon, we gotta get this in the oven.
Cutting the bread into sections might not necessarily be traditional traditional but I like it this way. I love the crust. For me, it is all about the crusty exterior. Also, my ratio of whole wheat flour to white flour is off. I use more whole wheat. Most authentic recipes go a little lighter, like a 50/50 blend.
For me, I bake at 450 degrees for 45 minutes or so. After 10 minutes, you ought to begin to smell the bread baking. After 20 minutes, I rotate the bread in the oven, moving what’s in the near row to far row. 10 minutes later, spin them again. Repeat 10 minutes and pull them when it’s time. I like a darker crust but you may sometimes see lower baking temperatures being used. You have to careful at how high you set your oven. There is a point of temperature that the chemical reaction between the soda and buttermilk just burns up and cannot do what it is supposed to do. I think 450 degrees is the limit.
In Ireland, soda bread is referred to as a “cake” . For example, I just made a “brown cake”. Using baking soda as opposed to yeast gives the bread a “cakey” quality. The soft flour assists also. All told, this bread cost me about $2.75 to make. Is it worth it? I sure think so. It is worth it on many levels. I know that I cannot buy this bread as good anywhere. I won’t buy the soda bread from the Irish bakery that sold me the flour. I control what I am eating without any food scientist’s grubby little fingers involved. I get to eat well and honor tradition.
Traditional Irish Brown Soda Bread…………..my way. Thanks to all who follow this blog. Thanks to all who stop by to look.