Irish Brown Soda Bread – Is it really Irish?
Originally published on Headstuff Ireland
Traditional Irish Brown 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.
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 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 complimenting 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.
On the other hand, how about a complete 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.
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.
Origins of traditional Irish soda bread
Sorry to say this but Irish Brown Soda Bread 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.
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.
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.
Types of Irish 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 – that isn’t brown is made from the bleached grain of soft wheat. There are several cooking techniques that differentiate the bread as well.
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.
Traditions of Irish Bread
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.
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.
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.
Soda farls don’t contain anything extra to the basic recipe; the difference comes simply in the way the dough is cooked.
Irish Soda Bread recipe
- 12 oz/340g plain flour either wholewheat or white
- 1/2 teaspoon of salt
- 1/2 teaspoon of sodium bicarbonate
- 1/2/284 mls of buttermilk
If you don’t have buttermilk handy simply add around a tsp of lemon juice to your regular milk (you could use alternatives like soy or almond) and let it sit for 15 minutes.
Mix all of your dry ingredients together and then sieve the dry ingredients to add air. Then make a well in the centre of the dry mix and add half of the buttermilk then mix this gently. Add the rest of the buttermilk and knead lightly to incorporate. If the mixture seems dry and heavy when using wholewheat flour add a little more buttermilk. It will stick to your hands be warned.
Put the dough onto a floured counter and bring it together gently to make a round and then transfer this to a baking sheet. Cut a cross quite deeply into the top of the bread to “let the fairies out” and then put in the oven for 40 to 45 minutes. To check if the bread is baked lightly tap on the bottom if it sounds hollow then it’s ready.
You can add all kinds of ingredients to your soda bread mix, cheese and onion, bacon bits, fruit like raisins, dried cranberries and blueberries, nuts, seeds pretty much anything you want to create a sweet or savoury bread.
Irish Soda Farls Recipe
Farls are traditionally cooked in a griddle pan over an open fire. This bread are flatter than a 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.
- use the above ingredients and make the soda bread
Use a rolling pin and roll out the dough into a round that is about 1/2 an inch thick. Cut into 4 equal pieces.
Using a dry (no oil) round griddle you cook each farl for 10 minutes on each side. You will know when they are ready as it sounds hollow when tapped. Serve with great butter and jam and enjoy. If you have farls leftover (which rarely happens) simply fry them in bacon fat or a dry pan the next day and serve up with your Full Irish breakfast.
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