Traditional Irish Soda Bread Do’s and Don’ts

Last Saturday here in Seattle we had the annual Irish Soda Bread Contest. The weekend before, a workshop was held on how to bake traditional soda bread and I was privileged to be asked back again to speak to the novice bakers. Mary Shriane, who has won and placed in the Seattle contest so often she hasn’t kept score, was the master baker. At the end of the afternoon each participant brought home at least one loaf of fresh bread and great fun was had by all.

Since St. Patrick’s day is coming up (and here in Seattle we celebrate with a whole week of Irish activities), I thought I might talk a bit about how to bake a good loaf of traditional Irish soda bread so you can try it yourself and surprise your family on March 17th.

When the ingredients are as few and as basic as in soda bread, the quality and freshness of those ingredients become extremely important. Ever wonder why soda bread tastes so much better in Ireland than home here in the Pacific Northwest? Perhaps it’s because we buy mass-marketed flour of indeterminate age at the grocery store instead of the freshly milled flour from local mills. For outstanding soda bread, consider buying unbleached or a whole wheat low-protein flour from a local mill. Buy a fresh box of bread soda while you are at it.

Soda bread made correctly should have a chewy crust outside but a tender crumb inside. When I  taste chewy soda bread I know the bread contains too much gluten. Gluten is a protein necessary for yeasted breads where its stretchy filaments are needed to capture the carbon dioxide (CO2) gas made by the yeast. The whole purpose of kneading bread dough is to form a network of gluten fibers. However, in soda bread where gluten is not needed, these filaments just make the bread tough. To avoid chewy bread, chose a low-protein (and therefore low-gluten) flour.

Avoid any flours that are made with hard wheat or marked as high protein, “best for bread”, or  “bread” flour. These recommendations refer to yeasted breads not soda breads. Chose flours that are identified as low protein, soft wheat or cake flours. If you can’t find these flours, your next best choice is unbleached all-purpose flour which is a combination of low and high protein flours. Avoid self-rising flour which is all purpose flour with added baking powder.
Don’t encourage the formation of gluten in your dough by kneading it. Mix the ingredients just long enough to form a dough, and handle that dough as little as possible.

What if your loaf comes out low, tough and dense?
Sláinte usually discovers something has gone wrong with the leavening (rising) of the bread. With soda bread, the CO2 gas needed to raise the bread is formed when the sodium bicarbonate (bread soda) combines with an acid (soured milk). The fizzy CO2 gas that is formed becomes trapped in the cooking dough and the loaf rises. Reasons for an improperly leavened loaf include:

  • You used too little sodium bicarbonate. This translates into too little CO2.
  • Your baking soda was too old. To test your baking soda’s effectiveness, mix 1/4 teaspoon with 2 teaspoons of vinegar or lemon juice. The mixture should fizz immediately. Store baking soda in a cool dry place and replace every 6-12 months. Don’t expect that open box of baking soda you keep in your fridge to raise your bread.
  • You spent too much time kneading the dough. Baking soda starts to react and release its gas as soon as it comes into contact with the sour milk. Take too long and the gas will escape before the bread is baked. Kneading will also cause chewy gluten to form. Always mix your ingredients just long enough to form a dough and immediately put the loaf into the oven.
  • You used too little acid. As Sláinte explained, acid is needed to release the CO2 gas from the baking soda. This acid can come from any kind of sour milk including sour cream, yogurt, and buttermilk (fresh or powdered). Or you can sour your own milk by adding 1 tablespoon of lemon juice to two cups of low fat milk. You could also add 1 and 1/4 teaspoons of cream of tartar to the milk instead of lemon juice to get similar results.
  • You used baking powder instead of baking soda. Baking soda is pure sodium bicarbonate. Used alone it needs an ingredient like sour milk to make the dough rise. Baking powder contains both sodium bicarbonate and an acid (usually cream of tartar). When you use both sour milk and baking powder your dough now contains too much acid which reduces the amount of CO2 gas produced. Once you have some soda bread experience you can substitute part of the baking soda with baking powder. Beginners, however, should stick with plain baking soda.

If your bread tastes soapy, salty, or bitter or if the crust is too dark:

You might have added too much baking soda or baking powder or used self-rising flour.

If your bread’s texture is dry:

You might have added too much baking soda, too little liquid or not baked it at high enough temperature.

If your loaf has big holes, lumps or dark streaks.

You did not combine your leavening agent(s) with your other dry ingredients properly. When using baking powder or baking soda in a recipe, make sure to sift or whisk with them into the other dry ingredients before adding the liquid. This ensures they are distributed uniformly and that no lumps remain.

Here is the basic recipe that Sláinte uses for white bread. She prefers soft wheat or pastry flour but can use all  purpose in a pinch. For sour milk she either sours her own with 1 tablespoon lemon juice or uses lowfat plain yogurt.

3 cups unbleached white flour

1½  teaspoon salt

1½  teaspoon fresh baking soda

Enough sour milk to mix (1½ to 2 cups)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Add dry ingredients into a large bowl and whisk until no lumps are visible. Add enough sour milk to make a soft non-sticky dough and form it into a ball. Avoiding handling the dough and do not knead. Put dough onto a floured board and form a round flattened loaf about as deep as your fist. Place on greased cookie sheet and, with a sharp floured knife, cut a ½ inch deep cross on the top that goes over the sides. Bake for 45-50 minutes. When the loaf is cooked it will sound hollow when you rap the bottom with your knuckles. Remove from oven and cool. Then wrap in a slightly damp tea towel until eaten.

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