Irish Soda Bread

Soda Bread illustration for St Patrick's Day recipe

Soda bread is one of the least worrying breads to make because there’s no yeast to deal with. Not that yeast is especially complicated stuff, it’s just that all the proving, warming, kneading, rising business can seem daunting in a way that adding a tsp of baking soda never does.

Traditionally soda bread is baked in a round shape with a cross cut into the top. There prosaic reason for this is that it helps let out some of the steam, but there are other religious and folkloric explanations. My favorite is that the cross lets out the fairies and evil spirits. How they got in there in the first place is not explained.

I’ve been making Rachel Allen’s version of soda bread for 8 years. The recipe was written out for me by the very sweet Irish girl that I shared a bench with at cookery school. She’d enrolled on the course because she was going to get married to someone who expected her to cook for his shooting parties and the like, and, because apparently nobody had told her that the 1950’s were over, she was attempting to meet expectations.

She was a naturally terrible cook, with no patience to follow a recipe, and the sunny yet misguided hope that everything would turn out fine in the end. After a month of burning, undercooking, over salting, forgetting the sugar, and butchering (not in a good way) she was ready to throw in the towel. That’s when a kind-hearted instructor took her to Waitrose and taught her how to buy ready meals, transfer them to her own cook-wear, and make a salad to go along side. This is what she duly did, and if her Christmas cards are anything to go by, it has been the recipe for a happy marriage – still set in the 1950s, with two children a red setter and a stately pile somewhere beginning with “Bally”.

And yet, she could always, always turn out a perfect loaf of soda bread.

Soda Bread

This bread is perfect toasted and smothered with unsalted butter and a good blackberry jam

It’s best eaten the day it is made because there’s nothing in it that acts as a preservative.

450 g flour
1 tsp sugar (ideally super-fine or caster)
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp salt
350 ml buttermilk (you made need a bit more – up to 450 ml

  • Pre-heat the oven to 425 (230 C)
  • Sift the flour, sugar, bicarb and salt into a large bowl, then make a well in the middle
  • Pour in the buttermilk, then using your hand as a claw, pull the flour into the milk and bring the dough together (If the dough is really dry, add more buttermilk). Don’t knead the dough – that makes it tough, just bring it together
  • On a floured surface bring the dough into a round about 1 ½ inches tall, then slash the top in a cross shape
  • Transfer to a baking tray, then bake for 15 minsOlives illustration for cinq et sept recipes
  • Now turn the oven down to 400 (200C) and bake for 25mins
  • Turn the bread upside down and bake for another 5 mins. It should be golden brown and sound hollow when tapped
  • Cool on a wire rack before eating

Just because I’ve given up chocolate for Lent doesn’t mean I can’t dream about chocolate soda bread – add at least ½ cup of chocolate chips to the dough (really delicious spread with cream cheese – don’t knock it till you’ve tried it!)

  • Or add a handful each of dried cranberries and walnuts, and ½ tsp of cinnamon (I love cinnamon, so I usually add 1 tsp)
  • Or add a handful of grated cheddar cheese and a tbsp of chopped chives
  • Or a handful of cheddar cheese and a handful of cooked bacon lardons
  • Or a cup of fresh seedless grapes
  • Or a cup of pitted green olives
  • Or add 2 tbsp of chopped fresh herbs – rosemary and thyme is especially nice

Prairie Story Recipe Swap image

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4 Responses to Irish Soda Bread

  1. Erin says:

    I’m going to try this! I was so busy before St. Pat’s day I didn’t make any. I’ll make some belated bread!

  2. Annabel Ingoldby says:

    I tried this today – I think I fiddled with it too much. I couldnt work out how wet or dry it should be. The inside was yummy but the crust was hard as a rock. thanks though I’ll keep trying.

  3. Kate says:

    You know, it took me a few goes to get the hang of it too. Some things to try.
    Use strong flour, or at least, good quality flour. Seems to help.
    The mixture should be sticky. Like the kind of mess a child would make if you let them help. You kind of gloop it onto the tray.
    Put a tray of water in the bottom of the oven – the steam helps with the crust – especially if you have a fan over, which tends to dry things out quickly.
    If it’s still too dry outside, try cooking the bread in a preheated cast iron pot with the lid on – take the lid off for the last 10 mins, or tip the bread (really carefully) straight onto the bars of the oven shelf for the last five mins.
    Hope that helps.
    Kate x

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