Brown Soda Bread: the Irish connection

Brown Soda Bread One of the birthday presents that came from a thoughtful friend in Ireland was a very welcome book of Irish Cooking by Clare Connery. While this was a book that I might not have ever noticed in bookshops in Ireland, having several Irish cookery books already, here in New Zealand it is a pure treasure. With a subtitle of Over 100 Traditional Irish Recipes it’s not likely that I’m going to run out of recipes to test any time soon. Leafing through it, the first thing that struck me were the recipes for Brown and White Soda Bread – instant nostalgia for the kitchens of my childhood where my mother, grandmother and aunts were always baking and there was much discussion over the best recipe for soda bread. Not that they ever used anything as prosaic as a weighing scales. It was always a handful of this and a drop of that.

I haven’t tasted Brown Soda Bread since I left Ireland and so, while making Clare Connery’s Ham and Pea Soup for supper, decided that this would be an ideal accompaniment. I found buttermilk, much to my amazement, at our small local supermarket and, in the absence of what Connery calls soda bread flour (I didn’t know such a thing even existed in Ireland) made up the leavening difference with cream of tartar and bread soda, also known as bicarbonate of soda. After working with yeast breads for so long, the recipe was simplicity itself. Put all dry ingredients into a bowl, add buttermilk, mix, dump in tin and land in the oven. Despite me using what I thought was almost too much buttermilk, there were no problems.

Not knowing how much it would rise, I was loath to put the entire mixture into the tin which was looking rather full, so shaped the excess into a wee round loaf and cooked that on an enamelled pan. I certainly have some traditionalist leanings but, to subvert them, I scattered the top of the bread, not with some extra wholemeal flour as in the recipe, but with a handful of sesame seeds – not something which would have been readily available in the Ireland of my childhood.

The end result was something I would be happy to lay before my mother and aunts. While there was a slightly damp patch in the centre, this wasn’t enough to cause problems and the brown soda bread went down a treat with the soup. The heretical sesame seeds, while not very noticeable on the fresh bread, came into their own when it was toasted for lunch the following day. I think this is a recipe that I’ll be coming back to in the future, especially as you don’t need to measure the ingredients – one cup of white flour to two of wholemeal and one of buttermilk and you’re sorted. I’ll dispense with the weighing scales yet!

Irish Brown Soda Bread
Plain flour – 175g
Bicarbonate of Soda – 2 teaspoons
Cream of Tartar – 1 teaspoon
Salt – a pinch
Wholemeal flour – 375g
Brown sugar – 1 teaspoon
Buttermilk – 400-475ml
Sesame seeds – 1 tablespoon

Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F and thoroughly grease a 19 x 11cm loaf tin with a little piece of butter.

Sift the plain flour, bicarbonate of soda, cream of tartar and salt into a large mixing bowl. Add the wholemeal flour and sugar and mix thoroughly. Make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients and pour in 400ml of the buttermilk. Stir with a wooden spoon to form a loose dough, adding more milk if necessary.

Turn the dough into the tin, leaving the surface rough. Sprinkle with the sesame seeds. Place the tin on a baking sheet and bake in the preheated oven for 30 minutes. Reduce the heat to 150°C/300°F and cook for another 30 minutes until the bread is well risen, brown, crusty on top and there’s a hollow sound when you tap the base of the loaf.

Turn out on a wire rack and wrap in a clean tea towel until cold.

Adapted from Irish Cooking by Clare Connery.



Food writer. Broadcaster. Blogger. Author. Married to Eight Degrees Brewing. Member of the Irish Food Writers' Guild, founder of Irish Food Bloggers Association and co-author of Sláinte: The Complete Guide to Irish Craft Beer & Cider (New Island)

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4 Responses

  1. Rob says:

    I’ve been making this over here for a while now – it’s next to impossible to get in Sydney.I’m using my mum’s recipe, which is very similar to the above, except without a tin – the dough is just formed into a large circular ‘pattie’ which is then scored crossways with a knife.One important thing is that you should never knead the dough – if you do, the texture will end up a bit ‘cakey’.Don’t forget that the perfect accompaniment to soda bread (aside from the obligatory butter & jam) is smoked salmon (lemon and black pepper recommended).

  2. Caroline says:

    Rob: The only reason that I used a tin was because the slices from the stale loaf would fit in the toaster as the Kiwi kitchen is ill-equipped in the grilling department. I always make sure that there’s some of the loaf left over as toasted brown soda bread, dripping with butter and topped with homemade jam, is one of my weaknesses.

    According to a pocket Irish cookery book that arrived in the post yesterday morning (thanks mum!) the cross that is cut into the top of the cake of bread is supposed to bring the blessing of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit on to the bread. I always thought it was so the fairies could find their way out!

  3. Rob says:

    You’re right! I remember now that about the fairies! That brings me back.On the other hand, I did read somewhere that it was to help the centre cook a little better, which would prevent the damp patch you mentioned (if you make the cuts nice and deep, the loaf rises around them, neatly quartering it, while also allowing the heat to penetrate deeper into the centre).

  4. Caroline says:

    That would make much more sense – but not be as nice a story!

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