Irish soda bread ... some people say it's a delicious breakfast bread. Others really enjoy dipping the chewy moist bread into stews and soups. But no matter how you eat it, the recipes are steeped in Irish tradition.
But while most people believe the bread originated in Ireland, that's not really true. Native Americans discovered that when baking soda was combined with a liquid-like sour milk, it became a leavening agent for making bread. Later, when Irish immigrants went back home, they took the leavening combination with them. Soda bread eventually became popular in Ireland, so popular it is now considered to be part of the Irish culture.
Traditional soda bread contains flour, baking soda, sour milk (or buttermilk) and salt. That's all you'll need to make it for this simple yet tasty bread. There's no yeast, so there's no kneading.
In the 1800s, bread making in Ireland was a part of everyday life. It was never bought from a bakery (bakery bread was only available in the larger cities.) The bread was baked in a cast-iron Dutch oven called a "bastible" hung over a fire or set on top of embers or coals.
Over the years, especially during the potato famine ("An Gorta Mor" or "The Great Hunger") of 1845 to 49, two breads became Irish favorites.
Soda bread, popular in Southern Ireland, was made with soft white flour and baking soda. Brown bread, more popular in Northern Ireland, was very similar to soda bread. But instead of soft flour, the recipe used whole grain flour.
Traditional bread didn't contain candied fruit, raisins, caraway seed or even whiskey. As a matter of fact, if you add raisins, you make a totally different type of bread with a different name: Spotted Dog. But these additions are not the normal Irish method. When the Irish add raisins, currants or other ingredients to soda bread, it is almost always for "tea bread", not for the "plain soda" that is eaten everyday.
The American version contains raisins and uses egg and butter to make the bread taste sweeter. While Americans seem to prefer this richer version rather than the traditional Irish bread, it is not a normal recipe in Ireland.
In Ireland, "plain" soda bread is served either with a main meal to soak up gravy or as part of breakfast. When baked, the color is either brown and white and there are two main types: "cake"and "farl."
People in Southern Ireland make cake while Northerners seem to prefer farl (though both can be found in both the North and South). "Cake" is soda bread kneaded then shaped into a flat, round shape. It is then cut with a cross on the top (to let the bread expand as it rises in the oven) and baked on a baking sheet.
The cross on the soda bread has several explanations, According to one Irish legend, the cross would "let the devil out" while the bread was baking. The cross also was a Christian symbol during holidays. Many bakers believe the cut cross makes it easier to divide into four pieces.
Farl, a word derived from the Gaelic word "fardel," literally means "four-part." The dough is rolled out into a circle and cut into four pieces and baked in a heavy frying pan or on a griddle instead of an oven.
Once you make Irish soda bread, you might wonder why Americans only eat it on St. Patrick's Day. And that's a great question. Because whether you prefer the traditional, American or fried soda bread, there's a very good reason for making Irish soda bread year-round. It just tastes good.