Irish soda bread is a classic quick bread. It comes together quickly with simple ingredients and using baking soda (thus the name “soda bread”) instead of yeast. It is a dense, tender bread, slightly tangy bread with a somewhat crunchy exterior. In this version, the bread also contains oatmeal and toasted walnut for extra body, flavor and texture.
This kind of bread came about more out of necessity than anything else. It is a simple bread, with simple ingredients and became popular out of a state of poverty. It was easy to put on the table. The wheat traditionally used for this bread is classified as “soft”, as opposed to “hard” wheat which is what we primarily find on the shelves at the grocery store in the US. Flour made from “soft” wheat contains lower levels of gluten and consequently does not work well with yeast but is better matched with baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) as the leavening ingredient. This is also why, I am suspecting, the good folks at Cook’s Illustrated chose to include cake flour in this recipe. Cake flour has less protein than all-purpose flour so the combination of all-purpose, wheat and cake flour in this recipe gets you closer to what a more “traditional” consistency is for this bread would be. Since baking soda is the leavening ingredient there is a need for an acidic ingredient to bring lactic acid to the party to react with the baking soda to form bubbles of carbon dioxide, giving rise to the loaf. Sour milk is the traditional ingredient to serve this purpose but, unless you want to wait around for some milk to go sour, buttermilk is more readily available. As a substitute for the buttermilk, you can add lemon juice or distilled white vinegar to skim milk (place 1 tbsp. of the acid in a glass measuring cup, fill to the 1 cup line, stir and wait 10-15 minutes for it to thicken).
I am calling this “Irish” soda bread because that’s what pops to mind when I think of soda bread and I suppose this is the case for most Americas. However, soda bread does not actually “belong” to the Irish. There are actually recipes dating back further documenting that Native Americans made soda bread using “pearl ash” far before the Irish were pulling these loaves from the fire.
The top of a loaf of soda bread is cut with a cross-shape to allow for rising in the oven. Of course there are various other references to why this mark was made, like warding off the devil, but it does serve a purpose. Some recipes call for cutting the bread all the way through into four wedges and cooking each wedge in a cast-iron pan as needed. On the subject of cast-iron skillets, this loaf can be cooked in one instead of on a baking sheet if you prefer. Cast-iron skillet is on my list of kitchen implements to acquire still. I know, sad but true. One day.
In the recipe below I have outlines the optional addition of raisins and cinnamon to this loaf which would make for a wonderful flavor along with the oatmeal and walnuts indeed. I chose not to use them in my first loaf, however, because it would be served with corned beef and all the fix-in’s. I splurged and bought some Kerry’s Irish Gold Butter to serve with this bread. If you haven’t tried this butter look for it in the specialty cheese section at your grocery store. YUM. It is like butter on steroids! I really want to try baking with the unsalted version sometime, although at $3.30 for 8 oz. I’m not sure that will be happening anytime soon.
Another note, some recipes use eggs and some do not. This one does not. I keep using the word traditionally but yea, traditionally eggs were not used because they were too expensive. Remember how I said this bread was popular because it was so cheap in a time or rampant poverty? Yea, not a lot of people using eggs in there bread. And if they did, it was a splurge for a special guest or occasion most likely. You can add an egg to this if you would like though, it would add a bit more tenderness and fat to the bread. I might try it next time just to see the difference.
Irish Soda Bread with Oatmeal and Walnuts
(Adapted from “Oatmeal-Walnut Soda Bread” from CooksIllustrated.com)
- 2 1/2 cups rolled oats, divided
- 1 ¾ cups buttermilk
- 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for work surface
- 1/2 cup cake flour
- 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
- 1/4 cup brown sugar, packed
- 1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
- 1 1/2 tsp. cream of tartar
- 1 1/2 tsp. table salt
- ½ tsp. ground cinnamon, optional
- 2 tbsp. unsalted butter, softened
- 1 tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
- 1 cup walnuts, toasted in a pan over medium heat, stirring, until just fragrant, 4 to 5 minutes
- ½ cups raisins, optional
- Soak 2 cups rolled oats in buttermilk for 1 hour.
- Adjust oven rack to upper-middle position and heat oven to 400 degrees.
- Whisk flours, sugar, baking soda, cream of tartar, remaining 1/2 cup rolled oats, salt and cinnamon (if using) in large bowl.
- Work softened butter into dry ingredients with fork or fingertips until texture resembles coarse crumbs.
- Add buttermilk-soaked oats, toasted walnuts and raisins (if using) and stir with a fork just until dough begins to come together.
- Turn out onto flour-coated work surface; knead until dough just becomes cohesive and bumpy, 12 to 14 turns. (Do not knead until dough is smooth, or bread will be tough.)
- Pat dough into a round about 6 inches in diameter and 2 inches high; place on greased or parchment-lined baking sheet or in cast-iron pot, if using.
- Place the loaf on a cookie sheet and cut a cross shape into the top.
- Bake until golden brown and a skewer inserted into center of loaf comes out clean or internal temperature reaches 190 degrees, 45 to 55 minutes.
- Remove from oven and brush with melted butter; cool to room temperature or serve warm with butter
*Adding raisins and cinnamon will make for “sweeter” bread so I would recommend adding both or neither. If you plan to serve this bread with say, corned beef and cabbage, omit these two ingredients.