In the United States, "Irish soda bread" generally means a somewhat sweet white bread made with eggs and butter and studded with raisins and caraway seeds — the "soda" in the name comes from the baking soda (or "bread soda" in Ireland) used to leaven it instead of yeast and kneading. But some people, like the founders of the U.S.-based Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread, insist that there's nothing Irish about this bread — that it's an American invention or at least a corruption of the Irish original.
To get the straight story, Epicurious turned to chef and cooking teacher Rory O'Connell. O'Connell trained with Myrtle Allen at Ballymaloe House in Shanagarry, East Cork, Ireland, and later became head chef at the restaurant (the post was taken over by Jason Fahey in late 2004, when O'Connell left for a stint with Alice Waters at Chez Panisse). O'Connell also founded the renowned Ballymaloe Cookery School with his sister, Darina Allen, in 1983 — both continue to teach there and are regarded as two of the foremost experts on Irish cuisine and food history.
Epicurious: What is traditional Irish soda bread?
Rory O'Connell: What we would consider to be a basic table bread — what we call a brown soda bread, which is made with whole-meal flour, or a white soda bread, which is with white flour — is just flour, bread soda, buttermilk, and salt. That's the basic recipe. The white flour would have been more refined than the whole-meal flour, so that would have been for a slightly more special occasion.
Epicurious: What is the history of soda bread?
Rory O'Connell: Bread soda was introduced in the early 1800s and it suddenly meant that people who didn't have an oven — and virtually nobody had an oven then — could make soda bread. They cooked the bread in what's called a bastible — a big cast-iron pot with a lid on it that would have been put right onto the coals or onto the turf fire. The great thing about soda is that it was not so perishable and it would have been relatively inexpensive. And they would have had buttermilk from the cows [old-fashioned buttermilk is a by-product of making butter] and they would have been growing wheat, so they would have had flour.
Epicurious: When did variations on the basic soda bread recipe begin to develop?
Rory O'Connell: You can't really put dates on them. But say, for example, having seeds in soda bread — a lot of people would completely raise their eyebrows at the idea of there being seeds in soda bread. However, the reality is that in Donegal and Leitrim there was a tradition of putting caraway seeds in bread. The likelihood is that the tradition was taken by immigrants to America.
Epicurious: What about the raisins?
Rory O'Connell: The raisins or the sultanas or whatever the dried fruit was would have been a luxury item. They would have been put into the white-flour version of the bread at the time of the year when the harvest was going on as a treat for the men who were working. The woman of the house who was making the bread would have put in a fistful of raisins or currants and then perhaps a little bit of sugar and an egg if she had either or both to spare.
Epicurious: So butter would not have been put into the bread?
Rory O'Connell: Absolutely not. But it would have been slathered liberally on the cooked bread. Yum, yum.
Epicurious: Noreen Kinney's soda bread recipe from A Baker's Odyssey contains flaxseeds, oat bran, wheat germ, and sunflower seeds. Is that traditional?
Rory O'Connell: No. Definitely not. Sunflower seeds? Ireland? Climate? [he laughs] They weren't grown here. However, wheat or oat bran, perhaps. Wheat germ, maybe.
Epicurious: You don't knead soda bread, do you?
Rory O'Connell: That's absolutely correct. You mix it to get the ingredients to come together with the minimum amount of handling. It's entirely simple to make but should be handled with great gentleness and care. The more you handle it, the tougher it gets. And that's a bit frustrating really, because it feels nice.
Epicurious: What is the purpose of cutting the shape of a cross on top of the bread?
Rory O'Connell: It's scientific, primarily, because it allows the heat to penetrate into the thickest part of the bread, so it assists cooking. And obviously the cross is a cruciform shape, so in a Catholic country that had a resonance — it had the symbolic note of crossing the breads and giving thanks. There was also the expression "to let the devil out of the bread," so it was slightly superstitious. And if you make that cruciform shape on the bread, when it comes out of the oven it breaks beautifully. So you've got the blessing of the bread by putting the cross on it and then you've got the symbolic breaking of the bread.
Epicurious: Is soda bread still eaten in Ireland today?
Rory O'Connell: You can buy brown soda bread in most shops — it's a fairly standard bread item made by commercial bakers right down to artisan bakers. Some of it is good and some of it is awful. White soda bread is less usual. It's not that it's not there, but it's less usual.
Epicurious: What about the version with butter, raisins, and caraway?
Rory O'Connell: No. That would be regarded as being some sort of exotic bread that wasn't Irish.
Epicurious: What is your personal opinion about soda bread variations?
Rory O'Connell: I think some are fine. I love plain white soda bread or brown soda bread, but [at Ballymaloe] we also do variations on the theme, using that simple, easy-to-prepare recipe as a vehicle for adding other ingredients — cheese, herbs, olives, roast cherry tomatoes, red onion, garlic. But then we don't say, "This is an Irish soda bread with sun-dried tomatoes." We say, "It's a sun-dried tomato bread made on an Irish soda bread base." But in a way I don't mind too much what people are doing with it as long as they're baking.
Epicurious: Do you find that more people are baking at home?
Rory O'Connell: There certainly is a resurgence of artisan bakers, and that's a direct result of the farmers' markets. There's definitely a renewed interest in cooking, partly for health reasons. The penny has dropped about the connection between good food and good health. And it is also partially to do with the economic situation we're in here. And I also think slowly there's a realization — maybe this is just me — of the therapeutic effects of cooking and what it can do in a home in terms of creating a positive atmosphere. It's great for children to see it. Traditions are passed on. If you give a child a bowl of flour and some buttermilk and some salt and a bit of bread soda and a little bit of instruction, they can make bread! On Saturday morning now we're doing cooking classes for children. One of the things we show them is the Irish white soda bread dough and then they make little breads and scones out of that and then we show them how to make a simple pizza base using that and they make little focaccias, all sorts of things. They adore it and they're good at it.
Our favorite soda bread recipes:
Irish Soda Bread with Raisins and Caraway
This is the classic Irish-American version with sugar, butter, and eggs.
Noreen Kinney's Irish Soda Bread
This very healthy variation has whole grains, as well as flax and sunflower seeds.
Mini Walnut Soda Breads
Walnuts add crunch and richness to these miniature loaves.
Brown Butter Soda Bread
Oats, browned butter, rosemary, and ground black pepper enrich this bread.
Soda Bread with Dark Chocolate and Candied Orange Peel
A far cry from the basic master recipe, this loaf has butter, chocolate, and candied orange peel.