Traditional Irish Soda Bread (and 10 delicious varieties to try too!)
Written by: Caitlin
Published: 1st March 2022, last updated: 20th May 2022
Irish soda bread is delicious, yet simple to make, and is one of those Irish recipes that is a staple up and down the country.
Many families with Irish heritage will have a cherished recipe that has been passed down through the generations, but just in case you don’t, we are here to teach you how to make this baked delight for yourself!
What is unique about Irish soda bread? Aside from the mouth-watering smell filling your home as it bakes, or the tantalising taste of it paired with nothing more complicated than a good salty butter, there is also the fact that it is made without yeast, which sets it apart from other breads.
Being yeast-less means Irish soda bread is a quick and easy recipe to make yourself at home, and is in fact the reason it grew to be such a popular staple in the first place.
Then there is the traditional shape and design, which is typically a cross scored into the top of the loaf. As well as having a practical reason to aid in the baking process, there is also a sweet superstition associated with this design. We will enlighten you further down the page…
The History of Irish Soda Bread
The Irish soda bread may have become a matter of national pride these days, but did you know it only came about due to its necessary affordability in the 19th century.
At a time when Ireland was faced with poverty and food shortages all over the country, it became necessary for bread to be made with the smallest number of ingredients, as cheaply as possible.
Baking soda, or bicarbonate soda, was first introduced to Ireland in the 1800’s and the Irish soda bread recipe was born. The people discovered that a combination of baking soda and sour milk acted as a leavening agent and caused the bread to rise.
The Irish were probably inspired to try this process by the Native Americans, who substituted in pearl ash, a natural form of soda formed from the ashes of wood, to leaven their bread when yeast wasn’t available.
The four ingredients used in this earliest form of Irish soda bread were soft wheat flour, salt, baking soda and sour milk, although these days it has become more common to use buttermilk.
The Irish quickly realised that this soft wheat flour was better for quick breads than the hard wheat flour that was typically used in yeasted bread. And since the unique climate of Ireland was only really suitable to grow soft wheat, it was readily available, and a perfect match!
At this time the majority of Irish families lived in isolated areas of farmland, and had no access to ovens. So the loaves were cooked on open hearths, either in three-legged iron pots or baked on griddles. The hard crust that this cooking method produced is now one of the most recognisable qualities of the Irish soda bread.
Whilst there was a time when Irish soda bread was a staple for the poorest in society, a sign that your family couldn’t afford ‘proper’ shop bought bread made with yeast, that is no longer the case.
When the financial troubles of Ireland subsided, Irish soda bread made a comeback as a fashionable staple and matter of national pride! Brown soda bread was paired with smoked salmon in the 1960s and was seen on a number of luxury hotel menus.
Then the artisan food movement of the last 20 years fully cemented the popularity of these loaves, and now they are even exported and the best recipes are sought after and fought over.
The Shape of Irish Soda Bread
There are two different shapes traditionally associated with Irish soda bread.
The Northern regions of Ireland are known for dividing the dough into four triangular shapes. Each of these triangle would be cooked on a flat griddle, which is the quickest method of cooking. These are now known as Irish soda farls.
In the Southern regions, the traditional shape is rooted in superstition. Here the bread would be rolled into a classic round loaf shape, and an ‘X’ cross shape would be scored into the top. The Irish families believed that this cross on top of the bread would ward off evil and protect their household, as well as letting the fairies out!
Making Irish Soda Bread
So you have sampled the culinary delight that is Irish soda bread and now you’d like to have a go at making it yourself? We don’t blame you! This classic comfort food is actually really easy to make, and you should be able to bring it together in just 10 minutes, plus baking time.
Whilst there are always going to be some variations on any recipe, and there are extra ingredients you can add, there are still just four main ingredients that you need to make Irish soda bread. These are:
- Flour – you can use either white flour or wholewheat/wholemeal, or a combination of both. White flour produces a slightly more tender crumb, and wholewheat/wholemeal adds that extra bit of flavour, so it really is a personal preference depending on the kind of loaf you are aiming for.
- Bicarbonate of Soda/ Baking Soda – Essentially baking powder but with 3 times the rising power!
- Buttermilk – This is needed to activate the baking soda, but don’t worry if you haven’t got any to hand, you can make your own substitution out of milk and either lemon juice or vinegar, which you leave to curdle. (Check out these buttermilk substitute recipes here.)
- Salt – the only seasoning you actually need! Although we will look at other flavour additions you can make to, but right now we are just considering the basic Irish soda bread.
- Preheat your oven to 200 degrees Celsius or gas mark 6.
- Mix the dry ingredients – flour, salt and baking soda together, then create a well in the centre of the mixture.
- Pour the buttermilk into the centre and mix in briskly with a fork.
- As the mixture stiffens you can use your hands to bring it together.
- Lightly flour your work surface and turn out the dough onto it.
- Lightly knead the dough. (Check this out if you are unfamiliar with the kneading technique.)
- Form the dough into a round shape and flatten it slightly
- Placing the dough onto a lightly floured baking sheet.
- Bake in the oven for about 30 minutes.
- Cool your loaf on a wire rack.
This is for the most basic form of Irish soda bread, but if you are adding extra ingredients there may be more steps included.
This recipe is a popular one and included the addition of porridge oats and butter.
This recipe includes an egg and a sprinkling of sugar, to make a slightly denser and sweeter dough.
- When kneading the bread dough, don’t over-work it- it is supposed to look a little ‘shaggy’.
- If the dough is too stiff to work with you can add a little drop of milk, but it shouldn’t be allowed to become wet or sticky.
- To help the centre bake through evenly always score the top of the bread dough before cooking.
- Tap your loaf to check that it is thoroughly cooked- it should sound hollow when it is ready!
- Once baked and cooled, Irish soda bread can be safely frozen for up to 3 months, as a whole loaf or in slices.
- If you are using butter, the colder the better- even frozen cubes of butter will work.
Types of Irish Soda Bread
Whilst you really can add any number of seasonings or flavouring to your Irish soda bread, these are the most common variations you may see:
- Traditional Irish soda bread – As detailed above, only four ingredients necessary, traditionally with white flour.
- Irish soda farls – Farls is the Irish word for ‘fourths’ or quarters. Using the same ingredients still, but split into four sections and cooked on a griddle, allowing them to take a flatter shape. The soda farl is one of the distinguishing elements of the Ulster fry, where it is served alongside potato bread, also in farl form.
- Brown Soda Bread/ Wheaten Bread— Still the traditional formula, but made a combination of white flour and whole wheat flour. The more whole wheat flour, the heavier the bread; the more white flour, the lighter the bread.
- Golden Soda Bread—Given its name from its colour, this is made by swapping approximately 1/3 of the flour for yellow cornmeal.
- Spotted Dog/ Railway Cake— Different names are used in different parts of Ireland, but this recipe has the addition of raisins or currents to the dough, usually along with butter and sugar.
- Seedy Bread—Traditional Irish soda bread with the addition of caraway seeds and a little sugar.
- Soda Scones – Traditional Irish soda bread dough, just cooked in a different form- roll out the dough then cut out with a round cutter and baked into individual rounds of yumminess.
- Spotted Puppies— These are made using the Spotted Dog dough recipe, and the Soda Scones method of cooking. Perfect for afternoon tea!
- Stripy Cat—This is a less common variation, but one I can’t wait to try for myself. It uses a traditional Irish soda bread recipe, but has roughly chopped chunks of chocolate added to it!
- Treacle Bread—Another afternoon tea must try! This bread is sweetened lightly with treacle and flavoured with a pinch of ground ginger