Who invented soda bread? Like most people, I used to think that it was the Irish. After all, they made soda bread for St. Patrick, right? Wrong on both counts.
The correct answer to the first question is American Indians, not the Irish. Early settlers in the New World recorded how native Americans leavened their bread with pearl ash, a form of baking soda, several hundred years before the Irish started baking soda bread. The first Irish Soda Bread was almost certainly baked around 1840 when sodium bicarbonate was introduced to Great Britain.
The answer to the second question is obvious, once you realize that St. Patrick died at least 1200 years before sodium bicarbonate appeared on the Emerald Isle. The answer to a third question helps us understand why we associate soda bread with the Irish and St. Patrick. When the great Irish immigration occurred in the nineteenth century, almost all of the immigrants were peasants. They brought with them a reverence for their patron saint, St. Patrick, and a love of the soda bread their mothers baked in iron pots in the fireplace.
Why did Irish housewives bake soda bread? The answer is simpler than you might guess. Irish housewives were peasants. The peasants farmed the land for the wealthy English landlords. Those peasants could not afford the yeast bread preferred by the English. Soda bread was cheap and nourishing. It was a bread for peasants, though once the landlords discovered how good it tasted, they probably began baking it too.
This is another bread I first encountered in James Beard’s Beard on Bread. It is chock full of fiber and flavor and is absolutely delicious with soups or corned beef and cabbage. If you toast it lightly, it is a great breakfast bread. I have changed the recipe to suit our taste, and friends we share it with like it too.
3 cups whole wheat flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 T sugar
1 T salt
1 tsp. baking soda
3/4 tsp. baking powder
1 large egg
1 1/2 to 2 cups buttermilk
Put one and one-half cups of buttermilk into a microwavable bowl or measuring cup and heat the milk to warm room temperature. Take a large egg from the refrigerator and allow it to begin to come to room temperature as you measure the dry ingredients into a large mixing bowl.
Preheat the oven to 375º and sift the dry ingredients into the mixing bowl. Make sure that the sugar, salt, soda and baking powder are blended thoroughly with the flours. Beat the egg into the warmed buttermilk.
Wash your hands thoroughly as you will be kneading the dough. Butter an eight or nine-inch pie plate or cake pan.
Use a wooden spoon to stir the milk and egg mixture into the dry ingredients. Add small amounts of extra buttermilk until everything has been moistened. Flour a flat surface and turn the dough out of the bowl. Use a spatula to roll the dough in the flour.
Knead the dough for a minute or so until it is smooth and elastic. Do not knead it too long, since the baking soda begins leavening the dough as soon as you add the buttermilk. Form the dough into a ball and put it into the buttered plate or pan. Use a sharp knife to slash a cross on top of the ball.
Put the bread on a center shelf in the oven and bake forty to fifty minutes until the loaf sounds hollow when rapped on the top and bottom. Set a timer for forty minutes. When it sounds rotate the loaf to make sure that it browns evenly and set the timer for another five minutes. If the bread now looks done, rap the bottom of the loaf. If it sounds hollow, the bread is done. However, if you have any doubt about the hollow sound, give the bread another five minutes before you take it out of the oven. It is better to overbake the loaf a little than to have a gooey center.
Let the loaf cool on a rack. Slice thinly and serve with butter, marmalade or cheese or as a tasty bread to go with a bowl of soup.
NOTES: I especially like soda bread fresh from the oven and slightly warm, but it is also excellent cold or toasted. It does not keep well, so plan on eating it within a couple of days.
Soda bread is the traditional accompaniment of corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day. Guinness Stout goes especially well with this St. Pat’s Day dinner.