Irish Soda Bread


Irish Soda Bread

Soda Bread is recognised as a uniquely Irish product. However, there is a general misconception that the Irish have been making and eating soda bread for a very long time. In fact, unlike yeast bread which was developed by the Egyptians some 5000 years ago, Soda Bread was first made in Ireland about the year 1850 – barely 160 years ago.

Oxford Dictionary: Soda Bread - noun bread leavened with baking soda. 


There are many references to baking in the old Gaelic Brehon Laws (laws dating from the 6th. to 9th. century that governed everyday life of the population) and it seems that bread was not considered an important food in ancient Ireland. After the Norman invasion of 1169, bread making, and baking did assume a much more important function and became a staple food in the walled towns built by the invaders. Indeed, for a long time after the establishment of the Norman settlements here, the native Irish outside the Pale (a portion of land under the control of the Normans. It stretched along the coast from Dalkey to Dundalk and occupied most of the present-day counties of Dublin, Louth, Kildare and Meath) continued with their food and culinary habits in much the same manner as they did prior to the Danish invasion. Many of the cereals grown in Ireland today were available at the time. Oats and Barley were the most common while Wheat and Rye were also available, but not in large quantities and their use varied from place to place. Cereals, collectively known as Corn, were milled or ground using querns stones (hand mills). Oats, being a rain tolerant crop are suited to the Irish climate, and were the staple food of the great mass of the people who ate them in the form of porridge (stirabout). Porridge was eaten with honey, butter, sweet or sour milk. It was sometimes made with the ground meal of wheat or barley, but oatmeal was the most popular.

Leavened Bread: Yeast and other Microorganisms.

Irish baking was mainly a domestic task while in the remainder of Europe baking was carried on by both domestic and commercial bakers. The Romans spread the technology of making bread with sourdough and leaven throughout their empire in Europe, but the Romans did not come to Ireland. The Gaelic Irish had traded with Britain for many years prior to the Roman invasion of that country. Some Irish people took up employment with the Romans, mainly as mercenaries. On returning to Ireland they would have brought back with them knowledge of Roman technology, including the method used in making bread

It is known that the Irish brewed beer and liquor. Brewer’s Barm, left over from the beer fermentation process, contained strains of yeast and this was used as a leaven in bread making. The Irish word for Barm or leaven for fermenting dough was descaid. The fermented juice of oat husks (Irish: sowans) was also used as a leaven, as was the practice of using a portion of old dough kept back from the previous day baking. The poor ate bread known as Maslin (a mixture of grains including rye, wheat or barley). Wheat was in short supply and bread made with it was considered a delicacy. On special occasions, finely milled and sifted wheat flour was used in making of sweet cakes, with eggs and honey.

The Brehon Laws set down detailed instructions for domestic baking, including grinding, sifting, kneading in a shallow wooden trough and baking. Breads and cake (Irish: bairgin) were baked on a flat flagstone (Irish: Lec or lec-fuine) over an open fire. Eventually the flagstones were replaced with metal griddles (Irish: gretal or greidel - meaning a thin metal plate).         

Leavened Bread: Soda and Potash

In ancient times, seaweed was processed to yield an impure form of Soda Ash and Potash (sodium carbonate). As early as 3500BC The Egyptians used Soda Ash in the manufacture of glass containers and the early Romans expanded its use beyond glass for use as an ingredient in medicines and bread. The extraction of the Soda involved burning the seaweed, usually kelp, in large, stone-lined, trenches and the ashes were then "lixiviated" (percolated in water) to form an alkali solution. This liquid was boiled to evaporate the water and to create the final powdery product, known as "soda ash”. It was common for Potash to be used in Germany as a baking aid in Lebkuchen (ginger bread).

In the late 1600’s seaweed harvesting provided employment on the west coast of Ireland and in the Scottish Isles. The extraction of soda ash and potash from seaweed provided a ready supply of these chemicals for use in Ireland and Britain. The industry died out when mineral deposits of potash were discovered in Germany. There are records of bread made using a mixture of milled grains, buttermilk and salt with soda ash (sodium carbonate) added as a leavening agent. During baking the chemical reaction between the lactic acid in the buttermilk and the alkaline sodium carbonate, caused the release of carbon dioxide gas leavening the dough and causing the bread to rise. Unfortunately, this chemical reaction is incomplete and although the bread was aerated, it often exhibits an unpleasant aftertaste – sometimes of soap.

In 1791, a French chemist produced sodium bicarbonate as we know it today, but it was not until 1846 that it became widely available in Ireland. The main benefit of replacing sodium carbonate with sodium bicarbonate is that because the chemical reaction between the acid and the alkali is a complete neutralization of the alkali there is no unpleasant aftertaste. 

Irish Soda Bread: What is it?

Irish soda bread is of the type known in the USA as “quick bread”. It is simple and quick to make and because yeast is not used in the recipe it does not require either proof or fermentation.

Irish Soda Bread: How is it made?

The traditional recipe consists of flour, salt, buttermilk and bread soda (sodium bicarbonate). The soda should be sifted through the white flour at least three times to ensure complete dispersion. The salt should be dissolved in the milk. The milk is gently mixed through the flour, usually in a plastic basin or in a mixing machine and there must be sufficient milk to ensure complete hydration of the flour and the resultant dough should be very soft.

Flour: the ideal flour for:

            (a) Wheaten Soda is Irish coarse whole-meal, together with a proportion of strong flour, and,

            (b) White or Fruit Soda is Irish soft flour and a proportion of strong flour.

The strong flour provides a stronger gluten to ensure sufficient volume. 

Shaping: The traditional method is to hand-up or mould the dough piece into a round shape and place on a floured baking tray. It is dusted with flour and using a Scotch scraper it is divided into four or using a knife it is cut into four, in the form of a cross.

Acidity of the milk: By using a litmus paper tester it is possible to determine the Ph of the milk. Unfortunately, this is not necessarily an indication of the amount of acid available and there must be sufficient acid to completely neutralize the alkali, otherwise an unpleasant aftertaste will be present. Many commercial bakers avoid this possibility by including an acid substance such as Cream of Tartar or Cream Powder in the recipe. The levels of addition must be carefully formulated.  

Baking: The temperature of the dough begins to increase in the oven. As this occurs the acid in the buttermilk reacts with the alkali in the soda and together they generate carbon dioxide gas. This chemical change causes the dough to rise and the bread increases in volume.

Enhanced Soda Bread:

The basic recipe may be changed to include cereals other than wheat, such as Oats in pinhead, flake or bran form. Other additions may include seeds, grains or nuts. The bread may be sweetened with sugar, brown sugar, honey, sugar syrups or glucose, dried or glace fruits, chocolate chips. Crumb softness may be improved with additions of dairy butter, olive oil or other vegetable oils.

Gourmet Soda Bread:

The addition of grated cheese, diced cooked smoked ham, chopped chives, sun-dried tomatoes, herbs, etc, produces an interesting savory product. Garlic or pesto buttered soda bread is particularly appetizing.

© copyright Derek O’Brien, Baking Academy Ireland, Dublin