What is Irish soda bread? Here's the history behind this St. Patrick's Day treat

·7-min read
It's a St. Patrick's Day staple, but what is Irish soda bread and where did it come from? Yahoo Life asked baking experts for the doughy details. (Photo: Gemma Stafford)
It's a St. Patrick's Day staple, but what is Irish soda bread and where did it come from? Yahoo Life asked baking experts for the doughy details. (Photo: Gemma Stafford)

St. Patrick's Day always comes with plenty of Irish food as part of the celebration. Traditional meals of corned beef and cabbage with a slice of warm buttered Irish soda bread on the side can be found on tables across the globe — flowing just as plentiful as green beer. But what exactly is Irish soda bread? What makes each slice distinctly Irish? And, how can you get a loaf that will make others green with envy this year?

Why is it called Irish soda bread?

"Soda bread received its name because this no-yeast bread is leavened with baking soda," shares Rachel Lessenden, who lives in Denver, Colo. Lessenden holds a degree in bakery science and is both a meal planner and founder of Health My Lifestyle, a plant-based recipe website.

Lessenden is also Irish, so the science behind soda bread has a personal tie. "The reaction of the baking soda with buttermilk, an acid, allows the bread to rise," she explains of soda bread's lack of yeast.

Although some American recipes add butter, traditionally the bread is made without it. Lessenden shares that to make a bread soda bread, the use of baking soda and buttermilk to leaven (rise) is necessary. While the leavening process makes this bread soda bread, the history of baking soda as an ingredient is what makes the bread distinctly Irish.

Why is baking soda used in place of yeast?

Jane Wilkins, a writer at Butterypan.com has many years of experience as a chef and fondly remembers her time working at a busy Irish restaurant, where she prepared Irish cuisine daily.

"There are two schools of thought," Wilkins says of soda bread's star ingredient. "One belief is the use of baking soda was introduced to Ireland in the 1840s during the potato famine as a cheaper and more readily-available alternative to yeast. The other belief is soda bread actually dates back much further, to the early 1800s when baking soda was first developed."

Why do we eat Irish soda bread on St. Patrick's Day?

Either way, over the years this affordable easy-to-make bread became a staple in everyday Irish cuisine, causing it to easily translate to the St. Patrick's Day dinner table.

"People eat Irish soda bread on St. Patrick's day because it's a traditional Irish food," Wilkins explains.

The traditional St. Patrick's Day meal of corned beef and cabbage is often served with Irish soda bread on the side. (Photo: Getty Creative)
The traditional St. Patrick's Day meal of corned beef and cabbage is often served with Irish soda bread on the side. (Photo: Getty Creative)

According to Gemma Stafford, a Los Angeles, Calif. professionally-trained chef and baker originally from Ireland who runs the website Gemma's Bigger Bolder Baking, there are many practical reasons this bread has stood the test of time and is still a staple in Irish cuisine.

"Traditional Irish soda bread is made in homes every day all over Ireland," she says. "It has a beautiful crust and a lovely wheat flavor. Irish soda bread is hearty and healthy, and doesn't require yeast or resting time, so it is incredibly fast to whip up."

Sally Marie Gimon, who lives in Waxhaw, N.C. fondly recalls eating Irish soda bread throughout her life.

"On my first trip to Ireland my grandmom taught me how to make her Irish soda bread," Gimon shares, "and I remember in her home we had soda bread with fresh butter every day."

Soda bread superstitions

Gimon, whose mother hailed from Glenties, a province in County Donegal, Ireland, fondly remembers her mother when she thinks of soda bread. "My mom passed away in 2019," she says, "but there was always a loaf of Irish soda bread in her freezer. When she made soda bread she would make four loaves at a time, but my grandmom thought freezing it was sacrilegious."

Gimon's story is not unique. Many different superstitions and specifications exist when it comes to Irish soda bread. While some freeze and others do not, most can agree the specific look of the bread is important for ensuring a good loaf ... and good luck.

"Traditional Irish soda bread has a particular look — the marking on top is a cross," says Stafford. "It comes from blessing the bread before baking. You also poke a hole in each corner of the loaf with a sharp knife to release the fairies that can curse your bread if not released."

In addition to the cross pattern on top and ridding your loaf of pesky fairies, Stafford's other top soda bread-baking tip is to level your teaspoon of baking soda before adding it to your ingredients, as skipping this step can result in an unintentional greenish hue inside of the bread and an unpleasant acidic taste.

What makes a good loaf of Irish soda bread?

No time to bake? If you're picking your loaf up at the store this year, Wilkins shares how to spot the most authentic variety.

"Check the ingredients list to ensure it includes all of the key ingredients like flour, baking soda, buttermilk and egg," she says. "Then, take a look at the nutritional facts: A good loaf will be high in fiber and low in sugar. Lastly, check the appearance of the bread to look for a nice golden crust."

What can you do with leftover soda bread?

Post St. Patrick's Day, many are left with extra bread that may go to waste. However, as the bread is enjoyed daily on many tables across Ireland, there are more ways to enjoy it well past the holiday than there are green-clad revelers in the streets at St. Patrick's Day parades.

Wilkins suggests adding some fun toppings like chocolate chips, raisins or even some nuts to the bread before baking, or using extra Irish soda bread in a recipe, such as your favorite savory bread pudding.

For Gimon, leftover soda bread can move from Irish cuisine to Italian with the help of a delicious olive tapenade. "My favorite spread for soda bread is an olive mixture," she shares. "I like to serve when I make spaghetti."

How do you make Irish soda bread?

Want to try your own homemade Irish soda bread? Stafford shares her family recipe below.

Stafford says the traditional
Stafford says the traditional "cross" cut into the bread prior to baking is a way of blessing the loaf. (Photo: Gemma Stafford)

Mum's Traditional Irish Soda Bread

Courtesy of Gemma Stafford at Gemma's Bigger Bolder Baking

Ingredients

  • 1 3/4 cups (265g/ 9oz) whole wheat flour (fine or coarsely ground)

  • 1 3/4 cups (265g/9oz) all-purpose flour

  • 1 teaspoon salt

  • 1 teaspoon baking soda

  • 2 tablespoons (30g/1oz) butter (cold)

  • 1 egg

  • 1 2/3 cups (13floz/370ml) buttermilk

  • 1 tablespoons oats

Instructions

1. Preheat the oven to 425°F (215°C).

2. Mix together the flours, salt and baking soda in a large bowl. Add the butter and rub it into the flour mixture with your fingertips until it resembles bread crumbs.

3. In a separate jug, whisk the egg and buttermilk together.

4. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour the liquid, 3/4 cup at once, into the flour mixture.

5. Using an open hand bring the flour and liquid together to form a loose dough. The dough should be quite soft, but not too sticky. You will know then if it needs more of the liquids.

6. Turn onto a floured work surface and gently bring the dough together into a round, about 1 1/2 inches thick.

7. Place on a baking sheet dusted well with flour.

8. Score the bread by blessing it with a deep cross on top. Poke a hole in the 4 corners of the bread to release the fairies and stop them from cursing your beautiful bread.

9. Glaze the bread with the leftover bit of buttermilk in your jug and dust the top with rolled oats.

10. Bake for 15 minutes, then turn down the oven to 400°F (200°C) and bake for 30 minutes more. When done, the loaf will sound slightly hollow when tapped on the bottom. Remove from the baking sheet and place on a wire rack to cool.

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