If you’re like countless others who anxiously await St. Patrick’s Day, you have likely already begun to plan your celebration. You’ve rummaged the closet in search of green clothing, decorated your home with shamrocks and leprechauns, and searched countless cookbooks for Irish specialties. Before you finalize your menu, be sure to include soda bread. Sliced thick, slathered with butter, and served alongside corned beef and cabbage, soda bread adds a festive flair to every St. Patrick’s Day meal.
With a history spanning more than two centuries, soda bread is a traditional Irish specialty. The first loaf, consisting of little more than flour, baking soda, salt, and sour milk, made its debut in the mid-1800s when baking soda found its way into Irish kitchens. At the time, bread-making in rural Ireland was performed domestically using minimal ingredients, equipment, and experience. Baking soda offered home cooks the opportunity to broaden their repertoire of recipes. Providing a quick, convenient, and reliable leavener, baking soda was simple to work with and easy to store. It also produced a better-tasting bread than what was originally available in the 19th century, making soda bread a staple of the Irish diet.
Today, soda bread is enjoyed throughout the world. Many take pleasure in its tangy flavor, dressing it with butter and preserves for breakfast, eating it with cheese for a light snack, or serving it as an accompaniment to a celebratory feast. As a quick bread, it is simple to prepare. The ingredients come together in a matter of minutes and the loaf is ready to eat in under half an hour. Soda bread can be made with a variety of flours and may include a number of added flavors and textures from dried fruits, herbs, and seeds. The Culinary Institute of America’s version, prepared with the addition of sugar, raisins, and caraway seeds, uses white cake flour for a light, tender crumb.
“Like most baked goods, soda bread doesn’t keep for long,” says John Reilly, associate professor in Culinary Arts at The Culinary Institute of America. “If properly cooled, wrapped well in plastic, and stored at room temperature, it will maintain its quality for about two days.”
To keep the bread moist and preserve its unique texture, some traditional recipes recommend wrapping freshly baked loaves in a clean tea towel while they cool. When serving, divide the bread into quarters using the cross on top of the loaf as a guide. The characteristic marking, cut into the dough before baking, allows ample room for the loaf to expand in the oven and provides four pre-portioned sections, also known as “farls.” Legend suggests that the cross is sliced into the bread to scare away evil spirits. Truth or folly, soda bread wouldn’t be soda bread without it.
This recipe, along with more than 175 others, is explained and illustrated in The Culinary Institute of America’s Breakfasts and Brunches cookbook (Lebhar-Friedman 2005), which is available for purchase at bookstores nationwide or at www.ciaprochef.com/fbi/books.html.
Makes 2 loaves or 16 rolls
- 4 cups cake flour
- 1 tablespoon baking soda
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 cup vegetable shortening
- 1 cup dark raisins
- 1 tablespoon caraway seeds
- 1 cup cold milk
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Prepare a baking sheet by spraying it lightly with cooking spray or lining it with parchment paper.
- Sift the flour, baking soda, sugar, and salt together into a large bowl. Using a pastry cutter or two knives, cut the shortening into the dry ingredients until it resembles coarse meal.
- Add the raisins, caraway seeds, and milk. Mix the dough until just combined; avoid over-mixing as this will cause the dough to toughen.
- Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Press the dough into a ball. Form the dough into two equal loaves, or cut into 16 equal pieces to make rolls. Dust with flour and lightly score an “X” across the top of each roll or loaf with a sharp knife.
- Bake the soda bread until it is lightly browned and sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom, about 8 to 10 minutes for rolls and 25 minutes for loaves. Wrap the bread in a tea towel directly out of the oven.
- Cool the soda bread in the tea towel on a wire rack before serving. It can be held at room temperature for up to two days or frozen for up to four weeks.
Nutrition analysis per 2.5-ounce serving: 210 calories, 4g protein, 41g carbohydrate, 4g fat, 520mg sodium, 0mg cholesterol, 1g fiber.