Irish Soda Bread: A Brief History
In the United States, “Irish soda bread” typically describes a lightly sweet white bread made with eggs and butter and sprinkled with caraway seeds and raisins. The term “soda” in the name comes from the baking soda, (aka “bread soda” in Ireland), used to leaven it instead of yeast. But some people, such as the founders of the Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread, insist that there’s nothing Irish about this particular bread. It is an American creation or at least a corruption of the original Irish recipe.
What people in the past would consider to be a basic table bread would have consisted of just flour (either whole meal for brown soda bread or white flour for white soda bread), bread soda, buttermilk, and salt. That’s the basic recipe. The white flour would have been more refined than the whole meal flour, so that would have been for a more special occasion.
Bread soda, (baking soda in the US), was first introduced in the early 1800’s. This new ingredient on the market meant that people who didn’t own an oven – and virtually nobody had an oven then – could make soda bread. Bread would be baked in a bastible, a big cast-iron pot with a lid that would have been placed directly onto the coals or the turf fire. The great thing about bread soda is that it did not expire quickly and was relatively inexpensive.
The typical mixings in soda bread are raisins, currants and caraway seeds. A lot of traditionalists have raised their eyebrows at the idea of there being seeds in soda bread. However, in Donegal and Leitrim there was a tradition of putting caraway seeds in the bread, therefore it is a strong likelihood that this tradition was brought to the US by Irish immigrants.
The raisins, sultanas or other type of small dried fruit used in soda bread was considered a luxury item and would have been found exclusively in the white-flour version of the soda bread at the time of the year when the harvest was going. It was considered a treat for the men who were working. The woman of the house who was preparing the bread would have put in a fistful of raisins or currants and then perhaps a little bit of sugar and an egg if she had either or both to spare.
A true soda bread is never ever kneaded. All ingredients come together with the minimum amount of handling. It’s very simple to make but should be handled with great gentleness and care. The more you handle the dough, the tougher it gets.
The cross shape cut across the top of the loaf is primarily scientific, as it allows the heat to penetrate into the thickest part of the bread to further the cooking process. Obviously the cross is also a cruciform shape, so in a staunchly Catholic country that had a tremendous resonance. The symbolic note of crossing the breads and giving thanks as well as the expression “to let the devil out of the bread,” so it was slightly religious and slightly superstitious. If you make that cruciform shape on the dough prior to baking, when it comes out of the oven it breaks beautifully. So you’ve got the blessing of the bread by putting the cross on it and then you’ve got the symbolic breaking of the bread.
Although not as popular in the US, you can still purchase brown soda bread in most shops in Ireland today. It’s a fairly standard item made by commercial bakers right down to artisan bakers. Some of it is good and some of it is just awful. White soda bread is less common.
Here is a fun and very non-traditional recipe. What is your favorite twist on this tradition?