You don’t have to be Irish to love Irish soda bread. A typical definition of an Irish soda bread states that it is a free-form bread made with baking soda and buttermilk. Raisins or currants and even caraway seeds are commonly added as well. To me, soda bread looks like a giant scone, and it tastes like a barely, sweetened whole grain biscuit. I, especially, love a good whole grain soda bread full of dried currants. I have even seen some recipes with oats in them as well.
From what I have read on the subject of Irish soda breads, baking soda was more easily available than yeast. This is why a soda bread dough can be whipped up in short order, baked and served hot from the oven in no time at all! Soda breads are quick breads. Baking soda helps to leaven the loaf as long as there is an acidic ingredient in the dough. That acidic ingredient is buttermilk. Baking soda and buttermilk, together, create a neutralization reaction whose by-products include, carbon dioxide gas bubbles, salt and water. The gas bubbles get stuck in the dough. Once in the oven, these trapped gas bubbles are under pressure. They expand, pushing up and down against the dough, causing it to rise.
There are so many recipes for soda breads out there, and so many variations as well. Some recipes use just all purpose flour, while others use all whole wheat flour. I like to use a combo of flours, usually half all purpose and half whole wheat, which gives the bread some heft and a richer, nutty texture.
Here is a gorgeous recipe for you to try. I have modified the ingredients somewhat to create a bread that I especially like, but it is based on Mrs. O’Callaghan’s recipe from the Ballinalacken Castle Country House & Restaurant. I have even included a photo of the one I just made so that you can see what this version of soda bread looks like.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Cover a large sheet pan with parchment paper and set it aside. In a large bowl, whisk together 3 cups all purpose flour, 3 cups white whole wheat flour, 1/2 cup packed brown sugar(light or dark), and 1 teaspoon baking soda. Using a pastry blender or your fingers cut in 4 tablespoons, cold, unsalted butter that has been cut into small cubes, until the butter is the size of peas. Mix 1 cup dried currants into the mixture. Add 2 1/2 cups buttermilk, and blend until you can gather the dough into a ball. If the dough is still too dry add another couple of tablespoons of buttermilk.
Gather the dough into a large, rough, round shape and place it in the center of the parchment covered sheet pan. Using a large knife or straight razor, cut a large “X”, 1/2 inch deep, across the entire top of the dough.
Bake the dough for about 40 minutes or until the bread is a lovely dark brown color. Allow to cool until barely warm and cut the soda bread into slices. Serve slathered with Irish butter or any butter for that matter! Enjoy!