Growing up, St. Patrick’s Day in our house meant a corned beef and cabbage dinner with plenty of potatoes and carrots tossed in. I remember my father being the one to take over the kitchen on this holiday since it was “his side” that was of Irish descent. This wasn’t food that my mother grew up with in her Italian household, but over time she eventually took on preparing this annual celebration. As I grew into adulthood I took this tradition with me, and somewhere along the way, I added Irish Soda Bread to the menu.
When I first started making Irish Soda Bread, it was all about the “quickness” of the bread: white flour along with currants and caraway seeds were my go-to ingredients for years. After a friend returned from a visit to Ireland about ten years ago our conversation, as always, turned to food. She loved the Irish Soda Bread, but it was very different from what we were used to here: it was more dense, coarser and did not have the added currants or caraway seeds. I decided it was time to do some investigating and, just maybe, up my game a little!
As I foraged through traditional recipes from Ireland, they all centered around four basic ingredients: buttermilk, baking soda, salt, and wholemeal flour usually blended with some unbleached white flour. I initially made the assumption that wholemeal flour was simply the Irish version of our whole-wheat flour – but the heavy doorstops I ended up with after baking were clear evidence that this assumption was so wrong! Delving more into the flour issue, I learned that Irish wholemeal flour is coarser, containing bits of bran and germ, versus the whole-wheat flour we know, which is generally finely ground and uniform in texture. I got to thinking that this was what likely contributed to the coarser texture of the Irish Soda Bread my friend remembered so fondly. While Odlums Irish wholemeal flour is now available on Amazon – and even King Arthur makes their “Irish Style Flour” – at that time, it was not something so easily found. So I set about trying to mimic that flour by adding what seemed to be missing to our whole-wheat flour: the unground bran and germ.
After a good amount of experimentation, I finally arrived at ratios that seem to work well. In addition to the basic traditional ingredients, I also add just a touch of butter to soften the dough, a little bit of sugar for flavor without really sweetening the bread, and baking powder for a little more lift during baking. I had found these ingredients were sometimes added, in varying amounts, in recipes both from Ireland as well as from the US. The other “basic” that remains is how fast and easy preparing this delicious bread is: it uses only one bowl, no mixer, and requires no rising, kneading or proofing. The time you start measuring to the time the bread goes into the oven is all of about 20 minutes. It doesn’t get any easier than that!
So, you may be wondering if true Irish wholemeal flour is available now, why would I want to continue making this bread using my “wholemeal flour concoction”? Well, the practical reason is that I really don’t need yet one more flour on the baking shelf in my cupboard. Plus, I really, REALLY like this bread just as it is!
Irish Soda Bread
10 oz. whole wheat flour
5 oz. unbleached, all-purpose flour (plus a bit for dusting your counter & bread)
5 oz. wheat bran
1 oz. wheat germ
1 T sugar
1.5 tsp baking soda
1.5 tsp baking powder
1 tsp kosher salt
2 T butter, cut into small cubes, at room temperature
2 cups buttermilk
First, preheat your oven to 375 degrees.
Mix both flours, wheat bran, wheat germ, sugar, baking soda, baking powder and salt together really well in a bowl.
Next, sprinkle the butter over the top of the mixed dry ingredients.
Work the butter well into the dry ingredients. Use your fingers for this. This is NOT like pie pastry where you want to see bits of butter throughout. What you are looking to do is to coat the grains of the dry ingredients evenly with butter. Once you’re done, no butter should be visible. Only by using your fingers will you know if there are any clumps of butter remaining.
Next, make a “well” in the center of the mixture and pour the buttermilk into the well.
Using a rubber spatula, start mixing by bringing the dry ingredient mixture from the outside in toward the buttermilk. I find it easiest to keep rotating the bowl as I’m bringing the dry ingredient mixture inward. Give everything a good stir, until all the flour is moistened. The dough will be a soft & raggedy looking.
Next, sprinkle just a bit of flour onto your countertop – not a lot, since you don’t want to dry out the dough. Just enough to keep it from sticking to the countertop. Turn the dough onto your countertop.
Now form the dough into a round about 6 inches in diameter. Again, this will not be smooth and silky, but rather rough & craggy. And because the dough is so soft, you will have some remnants left on your fingers!
The bread can be baked either free-form on a sheet pan, in an 8” or 9” cake pan, or in a similarly sized cast iron pan. I prefer cast iron, it gives me a beautiful crust all the way around. If you’re using a cake pan, be sure to lightly butter it. My cast iron pans are so well-seasoned that nothing sticks, so there’s no need to bother buttering! Transfer your dough round to the pan of your choosing.
Cut an “X” in the top, about half an inch deep using a sharp knife and give the bread a nice little dusting of flour. Because the dough is soft, I find the sharper the knife and quicker the strokes, the better. An interesting tidbit: The “X” or “cross” cut on the top of the bread was traditionally done to ward off the devil and to protect the household! Whatever the original reason, doing so gives it room to rise without cracking and more exposed surface area for that beautiful crust to develop. If it also helps to keep the devil at bay, I’m not going to argue!
Place your pan in the preheated oven and set your timer for 20 minutes, which will be just under halfway through baking. That will be your cue to rotate your pan so you get a nice, even bake. Set your timer for 20 more minutes and check the temperature of the bread for doneness: at the center it should register 185 degrees. In my oven, the second part of baking takes about 25 minutes – remember that every oven is different!
Once your bread is done baking, remove it from the pan immediately and set it on a wire rack to cool.
With the amazing aromas spreading throughout your home, you will want to dive in right away. All I can do is urge you not to; the bread needs some time to rest. Give it about an hour – the perfect amount of time to get your butter out of the refrigerator and let it come to spreadable room temperature!
Irish Soda Bread is best eaten the same day it’s made. However, if you want to keep it for a day, you may wrap it tightly in plastic wrap. Just be sure it’s COMPLETELY cool or the heat will create steam inside the plastic wrap and you will lose your crunchy crust. Let it sit for a few hours, it’s incredible how long it will hold heat!
Speaking of using it the next day, this nutty, high-fiber, flavorful bread is SO GOOD for breakfast, toasted and spread with a nice slather of some good salted Irish butter – and enjoyable any time of year!
Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
The Chopping Block's Owner/Chef Shelley Young demonstrates how to make a different version of Irish Soda Bread that you may be familiar with in this video.
If want to want to up your bread-baking game, come check out our Artisanal Breads Boot Camp at The Chopping Block. We also have a How to Bake Bread hands on class this Saturday, March 17 10am at Lincoln Square. If you can't make it this weekend, join us on Sunday, March 25 10:30am at our Merchandise Mart location.
And even if you can't have gluten, you can still have bread. We show you how to make freshly baked breads in our Gluten-Free Breads Boot Camp. There’s nothing like homemade bread to make your home feel even more special than it already is!