The history of Irish soda bread

Irish soda bread history is a tale of the mixing of food cultures – the Irish and the new world. Irish soda bread – that gloriously chewy nutty slice of brown perfection served with a deep rich seafood chowder or a bowl of beautiful prawns – otherwise known as the food of the gods and a staple in Irish food culture.

Irish soda bread history

As travellers and wanderers in many countries in Europe, we often come across dishes that we wish we could create at home. Irish bread is really easy to make at home, no kneading is required, no special equipment and you can have warm Irish bread from the oven on a daily basis.

Slathered with rich Irish butter and chewed slowly the flavour of the Irish bread compliments virtually anything it is served with. Rich seafood pates or smoked fish are enhanced when they are draped over some Irish brown bread. Irish black butter or a simple homemade jam takes on a new dimension when slathered with butter on some Irish brown soda bread.

Why Irish butter is the best in the world

There are many things Ireland is known and famous for – its pubs, friendly residents and jaw-dropping scenery. Food on the other hand is not usually the first thing you think of about Ireland but it is superb. I mean how can anyone pass up a Full Irish breakfast of egg, bacon, sausage, mushrooms and tomato served in an Irish farl cousin to the traditional Irish brown bread? This is also known as an Ulster Fry in Northern Ireland.

Irish soda bread history

Ah, Ireland with its traditions held close and the memories of the lovely bread baked by your mum or mammy hot and fresh from the oven a nearly daily treat.

Irish soda bread history

Soda bread was first made in Ireland in the Victorian era. Nicolas Leblanc developed baking soda after copying indigenous people’s methods for a raising agent. He refined the process and developed what would become baking soda.  

Who invented Irish soda bread?

Sorry to say this but the Irish soda bread history is not actually originally Irish. In fact, bread that used soda to raise it was actually invented by the Indigenous people in N. America. Now before you get on your high horse and start throwing out the insults I can honestly state that in my opinion Irish brown soda bread or Irish bread is superior to all others across the world. The traditions of Irish Soda bread and the fact that it is so culturally ingrained in the Irish food lexicon have made it the superior product you can buy or better yet make for yourself.

Irish soda bread history

The truth is that it was First Nations people who invented the chemical leavening that is used in soda bread. They used fire ashes to lighten up their corn and grain cakes, which were then cooked over an open fire or right in the ashes themselves. So this was in effect the first discovery of “soda” to lighten up heavy grain cakes.  I can’t speak for the flavour of that bread but I can certainly imagine it.

Savory Irish soda bread with Roquefort cheese, pumpkin seeds and flax seeds

It was in the 1750s that cheap wheat became a staple in Ireland. The problem with Irish wheat, however, is that it is “soft” wheat and doesn’t work well with yeast to raise it. Soft wheat only contains around 8-10% protein whereas bread made with wheat produced in the US is “hard” wheat and contains upwards of 14% protein. It is this protein that forms the bonds of gluten that allow the bread to rise and incorporate more air.

What is Soda Bread?

It wasn’t however until the early 1840’s that refined baking soda was introduced to Ireland and it instantly popularized Irish Brown Bread.  To clarify the terminology here are the differences:

Traditional Irish Brown Soda bread (or Wheaten Bread as it is known primarily in the North of Ireland) – is made from the whole grain of soft wheat, baking soda, either sugar, treacle or even honey for a touch of sweetness and of course the acid which is usually buttermilk or sour milk.

Irish soda bread history

Irish Soda Bread – that isn’t brown is made from the bleached grain of soft wheat. There are several cooking techniques that differentiate the bread as well.

Cooking techniques for Irish Soda Bread

#1  Irish Farls – this is white flour that when mixed with the traditional soda ingredients like baking soda, buttermilk, and salt is combined together and then gently rolled either flat or simply pressed flat into a round. The bread is then cut deeply into triangles and then cooked on a griddle pan.

#2  Irish Brown Bread – uses the whole grain of soft wheat combined with the usual ingredients but it is cooked in a Bastible or Dutch oven, which can be used within the fire, or oven as we do today or simple baked hung from a hook above the flames of an open fire. However, the bread is also deeply scored in a cross shape.

Irish Soda Farls - traditional Irish flatbread served with jam

Irish soda bread history and traditions

Depending on which part of the country you are eating your Irish Brown bread it will be shaped differently but every area has a legend or superstition baked into the bread. In the South, the cross shape that is cut into the bread is sometimes believed to be a religious symbol but it is also said that cutting the bread allows the devil or the fairies out.

Irish soda bread history

Others say it makes it easier to share the bread with 4 pieces. The deeply practical say it is to make the bread cook evenly.  For many folks cooking of the bread is done simply in a loaf pan and that is the way it can be bought at the local bakery or grocery store in Ireland these days.

Homemade cranberry raisin and walnut Irish soda bread on a wooden board. Wooden background.

There are as many different Soda Bread recipes as there are mammies in Ireland. From Guinness Brown Bread to treacle enhanced, basil pesto and sundried tomato Irish brown bread has morphed into a gourmet treat for some and it still remains very easy to make and add to your baking repertoire.

Soda bread, together with potatoes, were the mainstays of the traditional Irish diet, but both were prepared a little differently for a special occasion. Halloween was the time for Apple Bread, while Currant Bread provided some fruity nutrition at any time of the year.

Irish soda bread history

Soda farls are also known as boxty or potato pancakes – don’t contain anything extra to the basic recipe; the difference comes simply in the way the dough is cooked.

Irish soda bread history

You can download the recipes here.

Soda Farl Recipe

INGREDIENTS

600g of white bread or plain flour

480mL of Buttermilk – you can also use regular milk with lemon as a substitute

2 teaspoons baking soda

1 1/2 teaspoons of salt

Directions

Pour the flour, salt and baking soda into a bowl and mix.

Then add buttermilk and knead the mixture for a maximum of 2 to 3 minutes until you obtain a good dough that holds together.

Place the dough on a floured surface and then create a flattened round circle with the dough. Cut the dough into four triangle shapes. The triangles are then ready to fry in an oiled heavy-bottomed pan on the stovetop.

You can also bake it in the oven for about 45/50 minutes at 180°C. To make sure it is cooked properly, do the knife test to see if there is any soft dough in the centre.

Farls are the Northern Irish version but they are thicker than boxty and more “scone-like”. Farls are traditionally cooked in a griddle pan over an open fire. This bread is flatter than raised Soda Bread and often used for a Breakfast sandwich to be eaten on the go. When leftover mashed potatoes are added they become Potato Farls or Boxty depending on the other ingredients used. Farls simply means 4 parts.

Traditional Irish Soda Bread recipe

A good old fashioned soda bread with just the basic ingredients. Buttermilk gives this crusty loaf a good flavour.

Ingredients

  • 4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 4 tablespoons white sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ cup margarine softened
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 1 egg
  • ¼ cup butter, melted
  • ¼ cup buttermilk

Directions

  • Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C). Lightly grease a large baking sheet.
  • In a large bowl, mix together flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, salt and margarine. Stir in 1 cup of buttermilk and egg. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead slightly. Form dough into a round and place it on a prepared baking sheet. In a small bowl, combine melted butter with 1/4 cup buttermilk; brush the loaf with this mixture. Use a sharp knife to cut an ‘X’ into the top of the loaf.
  • Bake in preheated oven until a toothpick inserted into the centre of the loaf comes out clean, 45 to 50 minutes. Check for doneness after 30 minutes. You may continue to brush the loaf with the butter mixture while it bakes.

Originally published on Headstuff Ireland

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Irish soda bread history

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